Mark Story: A year after an NCAA title, Calipari's new mix of players miss out on Big Dance

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 17, 2013 

As Sunday progressed toward dusk, the "bracketologists" had long since moved toward unanimity: The Kentucky Wildcats were not going to be in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Still, as CBS revealed the actual tourney matchups, I could not help expecting to hear the word Kentucky called out. Half expected it right up until 6:32 p.m., when CBS announced that Arizona and Belmont were the 67th and 68th teams in the 2013 Big Dance.

For UK, Selection Sunday had officially become Rejection Sunday.

One season ago, John Calipari and his Wildcats were The Story of the 2012 NCAA tourney. The Cats were No. 1 going in as the overall top seed and No. 1 coming out after cutting down the national title nets for UK's eighth time.

Who would have dreamed that, a year later, the Cats would not be defending their 2012 NCAA title but instead making their second NIT appearance in the past five years.

It is so.

In its NIT opener, Kentucky will travel to Calipari's hometown, Moon Township, Pa., to face Robert Morris on Tuesday night at 7:30 (UK chose not to host a first-round NIT game, the school announced Sunday night, because its staff was spread too thin from Kentucky serving as host for NCAA Tournament games in Rupp Arena this week).

How did a season that began with the Cats (over-)ranked No. 3 in the AP pre-season poll come to this?

What we've learned in UK's slog (21-11) through 2012-13 is that Calipari's embrace of the one-and-done phenomenon — meaning almost a new team every season — is high risk as well as high reward.

This year, Kentucky's new pieces did not fit together well. The lavishly praised freshman class did not play up to its hype. Add a season-ending injury to the team's best player (Nerlens Noel) and that spelled N-I-T.

It's not easy to miss the NCAA tourney at Kentucky. Since the NCAA field expanded to at least 64 teams (1985), pretty much the only way for UK to be outside the event has been from scandal/probation (which sidelined the Cats from the NCAAs in 1989, '90 and '91).

Otherwise, the Cats have been in the NCAA draw every season since '85 except for 2009.

Of course, in the big picture, had someone said in 2009, when Calipari was hired, that the next four UK basketball seasons would feature three trips to the NCAA round of eight, two Final Four visits, an NCAA championship — and one NIT trip, most UK fans would have taken that.

So while Kentucky's archrival Louisville, led by Calipari's coaching nemesis Rick Pitino, opens NCAA Tournament play as that event's No. 1 overall seed in Rupp Arena on Thursday, the Cats are headed to Robert Morris to try to add another NIT championship to the ones that UK won in 1946 and 1976.

Talk about a college hoops culture clash. Kentucky averaged 23,099 fans per home game this year; Robert Morris drew 15,692 fans total for its home games.

"I feel like Rocky," Robert Morris coach Andy Toole told ESPNU on Sunday night.

Rocky might have some punch. Robert Morris (23-10) beat Ohio University and Cleveland State, lost by only two at Xavier and played Arkansas closer (79-74) in defeat in Fayetteville than Kentucky did (73-60).

This will be familiar ground for Cal in more ways than one. On his résumé, he has four NIT Final Fours (one while at Massachusetts and three with Memphis) and the 2002 NIT championship (with the Tigers).

It's anyone's guess whether Kentucky, which did not appear to muster much fervor while playing for its NCAA tourney hopes and getting hammered 64-48 by a mediocre Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, will "show up" for NIT play.

At least for Kentucky backers, there is one thing to embrace about the Cats playing in the consolation bracket that is the National Invitation Tournament.

In all-time men's college basketball victories, UK opened this season with a 20-game advantage over Kansas. Already this year, Bill Self's Jayhawks have shaved eight games off of that. If KU were to win the NCAA title and UK did not win again, Kansas would open next season only six victories behind Kentucky.

At least in the all-time wins race, victories in the NIT count every bit as much as those in the NCAA.

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

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