John Clay: Georgia game is one Kentucky can't afford to lose

jclay@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talked to his point guard Kentucky Wildcats guard Ryan Harrow (12) after he turned over the ball as Arkansas defeated Kentucky 73-60 on Saturday March 2, 2013 in Fayetteville, AR. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Thursday night's game is at Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum, so they won't be playing that Kentucky "Let's Fight" introductory video in which several Wildcats state that "tonight is the biggest game on our schedule."

They won't play that video, but they could.

Bottom line, Georgia is the biggest game on the Kentucky schedule.

John Calipari refused to say that at his Wednesday media opportunity — "I am worried about us being the best versions of ourselves," he said — but I will.

Lose to Georgia and the Cats slide right off the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble.

Lose to Georgia and it will take a monumental feat for the Cats to climb back aboard that bubble.

Lose to Georgia and it's tough to make a solid case that this Kentucky basketball team deserves to be in the field of 68 come NCAA Tournament time.

A win over the Bulldogs might not assure the Cats a spot in the Big Dance, but a loss could easily take them out.

Georgia isn't a bad basketball team, mind you. We're not saying that. In fact, just when it appeared that Georgia was a bad basketball team, head coach Mark Fox found a way to make the Bulldogs competitive.

Their last three losses were by one point at Vanderbilt, by two points at Arkansas and in overtime at Ole Miss, with regulation ending on a disputed call.

Georgia isn't a bad basketball team, but Kentucky is the better basketball team.

Or so the numbers say. Georgia is ranked 129th in the RPI; UK is 51st. Georgia is 83rd in the Sagarin Ratings; UK is 29th. Ken Pomeroy ranks Georgia at No. 104 overall; UK is No. 33.

If you are Kentucky, fighting for your NCAA life, you can't lose to a team with significantly lower numbers.

To be sure, there is the location-location-location factor.

"We're playing on the road," Calipari said Wednesday. "It's a hard game to win."

In the SEC, for some reason, road games have been almost impossible to win. Look at the trend lines.

Mississippi State has lost seven straight road games. Going into Wednesday night's games, South Carolina and Auburn had each lost six straight. Ole Miss has lost five straight. Alabama has lost four of its last five. Arkansas ended up 1-8 in SEC road games.

Even Florida, the outright conference champion, has lost three of its past four conference road games.

Kentucky has lost its last three road games by a combined 60 points.

OK, the 69-52 loss at Florida was against maybe the best team in the country. The 85-55 loss at Tennessee could be excused as a Kentucky team shell-shocked by the sudden loss of its heart and soul, Nerlens Noel.

The 73-60 loss at Arkansas is tougher to explain away, however, especially given the 93-63 drubbing the Razorbacks took at Missouri on Wednesday night.

"Arkansas did not play that well and they beat us," Calipari said Wednesday.

Like most SEC teams, Georgia has played well at home. The Dawgs have won four of their last five. They iced a red-hot Tennessee with an impressive 78-68 win last Saturday over the Vols at Stegeman. The win lifted Georgia's SEC mark to 8-8.

"They play well in that building," Calipari said.

In guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Dawgs boast perhaps the best player the country does not know. The sophomore has scored in double figures every game this season, one of only 11 players in all of Division I to do so.

And yet Georgia is not an NCAA Tournament team. It isn't even a bubble team. Kentucky is a four-point favorite Thursday for a reason. Las Vegas thinks Kentucky is the better team.

For Kentucky to be an NCAA Tournament team, it needs to prove that, with the season on the line, it can win in a hostile environment.

It needs to win the "biggest game on its schedule."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226 Email: jclay@herald-leader.com Twitter: @johnclayiv Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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