John Clay: Time to find out whether a loss was a good thing

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 11, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — So now we will see if the theory is true.

The theory being that you don't want to go into the NCAA Tournament carrying a long winning streak, that the pressure is too great, the load too heavy.

Conventional wisdom says that these days when competitive parity is king, better to lose a game before you get to the Big Dance than to have your heart broken in the Big Dance.

And yet, when March arrives, win or lose, surely a team wants to be playing its best basketball of the season.

The fact of the matter is that Kentucky's 71-64 loss to a good Vanderbilt team in the finals of the SEC Tournament at the New Orleans Arena was not exactly an anomaly.

Kentucky did not play particularly well in any of the three games here.

It struggled for most of the game with a middling LSU team that was on the NIT bubble before finally putting away Trent Johnson's Tigers 60-51 on Friday.

Back in January, the Cats had beaten LSU by 24 in Baton Rouge.

In Saturday's semifinal, UK held off Florida 74-71.

That's the same Florida the Cats beat by 20 points in Lexington, and by 15 points just last Sunday in Gainesville.

Plus, on Saturday, the Gators shot the best percentage (48.3) against a Kentucky defense since eventual national champ Connecticut shot 57.7 percent in whipping the Cats in the Maui Invitational finals last season.

Then Sunday, before a crowd of 18,114, in which 18,104 appeared to be Kentucky fans, the Cats failed to score a field goal in the final 8:03 and were outscored 16-2 over the final five minutes.

The Cats missed their last 13 shots.

"We lost at the end of the game," admitted Terrence Jones. "But we didn't make plays the first half."

"We should have been up 10 at halftime," said Coach John Calipari, before later remarking about the loss, "I wish this would have happened yesterday so we got home a day earlier, but ..."

Maybe UK's play had something to do with the head coach's mind-set. He made no bones about his dislike for the post-season affair, all but saying he wished his team could blow off the trip to New Orleans.

In the first two games, Kentucky got little to nothing from its two top reserves, Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer, who scored a grand total of three points.

Sunday, Kentucky made six of 28 three-pointers for 21.4 percent. The last time UK shot that many threes and shot that low a percentage was the 2010 NCAA Tournament loss to West Virginia. You remember that one. UK was eliminated after making just four of 32 threes for 12.5 percent.

Overall, the Cats shot 35.9 percent, their lowest shooting percentage since shooting 29.8 percent in that ugly win over Louisville on New Year's Eve.

Now the question: Was this just an aberration?

Did a young Kentucky team, without a deep bench, succumb to the fatigue of playing three games in three days? Did the law of averages catch up with the Cats?

Or how about giving Vanderbilt credit. In the two previous meetings, Vanderbilt was right there at the end.

They led UK 63-61 with 4:08 left in Nashville, but couldn't hold on. They trailed UK 66-65 with 4:22 left in Lexington, but couldn't hang with the home team the rest of the way.

This time, Vanderbilt was the team that made the final push.

Does it simply mean that for Vanderbilt, the third time was the charm?

"It's hard to beat a good team three times," said UK center Anthony Davis. "And Vandy is a good team."

Or, for some reason, has Kentucky lost the edge it had during that 24-game win streak?

"We've just got to get back in the gym," Davis said. "Get refocused."

And will Sunday's loss allow the Cats to reclaim that edge?

We are about to find out.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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