Mark Story: Key Wildcats AWOL in must-win game

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 7, 2013 

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ATHENS, Ga. — As his team's season accelerated into the brink, John Calipari paced in front of the Kentucky bench, head down, hands in his pockets.

There was just more than four minutes remaining in what was headed toward Kentucky's fourth straight demoralizing double-digit road loss.

One season after winning the national title, Calipari looked like a coach all out of answers in 2012-13.

"I'm disgusted with myself more than them," Calipari said. "If we look like this at this point (of the season), it means I've done a crap job with this team."

In a game that many people believe Kentucky had to win to stay in viable contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, UK got stomped 72-62 by a mediocre Georgia (15-15, 9-8 SEC) before a Stegeman Coliseum crowd of 10,062.

The issues leading to defeat have become all too familiar in a UK season that started with the Wildcats (over-)rated No. 3 in the country in the AP pre-season poll and seems headed toward the NIT.

UK got outhustled and outmuscled by a foe that played with far more hunger. Kentucky exhibited very little cohesion offensively. In a road environment, the Wildcats (20-10, 11-6 SEC) had several of the players it needs to be primary scorers more or less go AWOL.

That was exactly the script in UK's first true road game of the season, a blowout loss at Notre Dame. It was the same story in Kentucky's last regular-season visit this year to an opponent's arena, a quasi-blowout by Georgia.

Afterward, Calipari took the blame for a UK season that has jumped the rails.

"I've done this 27 years," Calipari said. "I've never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams, every one, have been cohesive. Every one of my teams has had the will to win. Every one had a fight about them.

"If this team doesn't have that, that's on me. What the heck did I do? I'm going to go back and really evaluate how we practiced, what I accepted. Because they are giving me what I accepted which is 'It doesn't matter whether we win or lose, I'm going to play the way I want to play.'"

Perhaps most distressing for Kentucky, in a game when UK's flickering NCAA tourney hopes may well have been on the line, the Cats got blitzed on a night when Georgia star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot a brutal 6-of-19 from the floor. (His 24 points came mostly from going 10-for-11 from the foul line.)

A home team doesn't even have to play especially well to beat Kentucky.

About the only Cats who fought like the season was worth saving were Archie Goodwin (20 points, six rebounds) and Willie Cauley-Stein (10 points, 11 rebounds).

Afterward, the two disputed Calipari's claim that the blame for UK's substandard season rested on the coach.

"If I were Cal, I wouldn't take none of the blame," Goodwin said. "He's a great guy for doing it. It's on the players. We've just got too many guys that, when it gets rough, they let go of the rope."

Pointedly, Goodwin singled out senior transfer Julius Mays and Cauley-Stein as guys who play with proper fight at all times.

Meanwhile, Cauley-Stein kept repeating the same phrase. "I don't know what we can do," he said over and over. "We've still got guys not going after rebounds. We've still got guys not going after loose balls. That's not on a coach. That's on guys who have to want to do it."

Kentucky goes into Saturday's Senior Day matchup with SEC regular-season champion Florida with precious little of note on its NCAA Tournament résumé.

The Cats are 0-3 against RPI Top 10 teams. They are 1-4 vs. the Top 50. Their best player, Nerlens Noel, is sidelined for the season by a torn ACL. In UK's last four road games, UK has been outscored by 17, 30, 13 and 10.

A win over Florida and a couple of victories in the SEC Tournament might still salvage an NCAA bid, but is there any reason to think the team that got whipped in Athens — by a Georgia team with losses to Youngstown State, Iona and South Florida — has anything for the Gators?

Thursday night, Calipari sounded like a coach already in damage-assessment mode.

"I'm not going to throw kids under the bus," he said. "What's happened this year, it's on me. It's my responsibility."

The UK coach paused, then laughed.

"The problem is, when I say that, I've got 12 players in the locker room who agree with me," he said.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: mstory@herald-leader.com Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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