John Clay: Cats' tourney bubble filled with err

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 15, 2013 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Calipari said it late Thursday night, standing in a ballroom of the Loews Hotel, talking to some media types, repeating something he's been saying for awhile.

It doesn't matter that it's March or that his team has played more than 31 games. The Kentucky coach wakes up every morning not knowing which team he is going to have.

Friday night, he got the bad one.

The really bad one.

"We laid an egg," the Kentucky coach said.

Make no mistake, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings got his good team and then some. The Commodores ripped the Cats 64-48 at Bridgestone Arena in a Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal that was not even that close.

Here's the thing that's so difficult to understand: Kentucky was playing for the post-season. A sub-.500 Vanderbilt was playing for pride.

And yet Kentucky did what any bubble team absolutely cannot do two days before Selection Sunday. It not only lost, it lost badly.

"When you play a game like this, it hurts you," Calipari said. "But the good news is everyone else is losing, too."

Kentucky has played maddeningly inconsistent basketball all season long. With Nerlens Noel. Without Nerlens Noel. Didn't matter.

Even post-Noel, this is a team that beat Missouri, that beat SEC champion Florida. It's also a post-Noel team that lost by 30 to Tennessee, lost by 10 at Georgia, that was blown out in the SEC Tournament by Vanderbilt in front of an arena filled with Kentucky fans who had spent their hard-earned money to come to Music City.

This morning, they are out on Broadway Avenue trying to sell those tickets.

Ryan Harrow missed 13 of 15 shots and turned it over four times in the first half alone. He couldn't buy a basket with Taylor Swift's money.

Alex Poythress played 29 minutes near his hometown and took three shots and grabbed four rebounds. His stat line read like a player who had played half his time.

"It's recurring," Willie Cauley-Stein said when asked about the effort. "It happens almost every two games."

By game's end, the contrast between the teams was jarring.

"I feel like tonight we came very close to playing to our fullest potential," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said.

No one could say that about Kentucky. That's on the players. It's on Calipari, too. He's the coach. He did a brilliant job molding last year's club into a championship unit. This year, though, he hasn't been able to get a handle on his team. Nothing has stuck.

"I can't say we're young," admitted the coach. "Vanderbilt is just as young as we are."

A year ago, a veteran Vanderbilt beat Kentucky in the finals of this very tournament. That was a different year and a different team. Stallings was asked which team was more satisfying to coach.

"Obviously to beat that Kentucky team last year, we had to play very close to our potential because that's one of the best college basketball teams I've seen in many years," said Stallings, who then got a bit choked up.

"It's been a long time since I've been as proud of a team as I am of this team here. I'm very proud of this season, and we're 16-16. It's the first time we've been .500 in about five months. I wish it was better than that (Stallings paused to regain his composure) but I'm very proud of them."

Kentucky is 10 games over .500 at 21-11. The guess here is that despite Calipari's contention that other bubble team are losing, too, the Cats will not hear their names called on Sunday night.

A fact the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will surely consider: This was Kentucky's seventh double-digit loss this season. Of those seven — Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia and Vanderbilt — only Florida is a top-30 RPI team.

"We have good wins against quality teams," said Cauley-Stein.

But bad losses, as well.

"I just hope we're the best of the bad," Calipari said.

And Friday night, when it needed to be good, once again Kentucky was very bad.

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

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