Kentucky men's basketball focuses squarely on the present: the NIT

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 18, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) put up a shot over Vanderbilt Commodores guard Kevin Bright (15) as Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky 64-48 in the SEC tournament on Friday March 15, 2013 in Nashville,TN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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  • National Invitational Tournament

    Kentucky vs. Robert Morris
    When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
    Where: Charles L. Sewall Center in Moon Township, Pa.
    TV: ESPN
    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
    Records: UK 21-11, Robert Morris 23-10
    Series: UK leads 1-0
    Last meeting: UK won 92-67 on Dec. 30, 1993

When asked Monday about the National Invitation Tournament serving as a springboard into next season, Kentucky wing Jon Hood responded with a question of his own.

"So you want to know what the benefit of going to the NIT is for next year's team?" he asked.

Well, sort of. Actually, what is the benefit of going to the NIT for this year's team? The NIT can provide sobering perspective, foster additional player improvement and better prepare teams for the following season. But if the trend continues and Kentucky has another freshman-dependent team next season, what's the point of playing in this year's NIT?

"Who cares about next year?" Hood said. "I don't understand. That's kind of silly thinking of the NIT and talking about next year's team. That's next year. Nobody cares about next year, right now. We're playing basketball this year. Next year comes when it gets here."

Kentucky takes that here-and-now attitude into the NIT, which begins for the Cats on Tuesday night at Robert Morris night. UK might have missed out on an NCAA Tournament appearance for only the second time since 1991. But an NIT championship means something.

For the umpteenth time, UK Coach John Calipari expressed the hope that the next game will be the occasion when the Cats show grit and resolve.

"Maybe the light goes on," he said. "Maybe reality hits. When you hit rock-bottom, either you're going to change or you're delusional. We'll see if we have delusional guys or they understand."

Robert Morris (23-10) apparently presents the kind of physical test that has dogged Kentucky all season. The Colonials count two seniors and four juniors among its first seven players.

"We're never a team that's backed away from anything," Coach Andrew Toole said. "We don't like to talk about size (or lack thereof). You're expected to use technique or maybe get help from a teammate."

Hood described Robert Morris players as "tough Pittsburgh guys." Toole said Robert Morris doesn't have a lot of players from Pittsburgh, but it does have players fromless-than-genteel places, including Philadelphia, Washington and New Jersey. Of Pittsburgh's blue-collar aura, Toole said, "Hopefully, we reflect that."

Calipari, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, denied that he's a steely-tough guy. But that's what he has repeatedly sought from the Kentucky players this season. He said he has seen it in Velton Jones, who is in his fourth season as Robert Morris' point guard.

"He'll grab a (teammate)," Calipari said approvingly. "He can physically dominate a game. No one messes with him."

Kentucky, 21-11, voiced no objection to being passed over by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Chairman Mike Bobinski said that UK had lost its five games away from home since Nerlens Noel went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"Without Nerlens, we couldn't win on the road," Hood said. "I understand that. That's understandable. And I get it."

Calipari said he had no complaint.

"If we took care of Vanderbilt and we didn't get in, I would have let loose," he said. "By losing to Vanderbilt, we've got nothing to say."

Because of staff stretched thin with UK hosting NCAA first- and second-round games later this week, and construction limiting parking at Memorial Coliseum, the Cats open the NIT at Robert Morris. That created a festive atmosphere at the small school (enrollment 5,000) in suburban Pittsburgh. Calipari tweeted that UK had to prove something at Robert Morris to persuade its loyal fans to pay for tickets to a second-round NIT game Sunday in Rupp Arena.

"We have something to prove," Julius Mays said. "We don't want to go out and be embarrassed by teams we shouldn't get beat by."

The season might be almost done, but this UK team has time to transform itself into a passionately competitive group.

"It's never too late for the team," Calipari said. "Never. We've got games. We can use the (NIT) time to get better. If not, why are you doing this?"

When asked whether the Cats will show that kind of improvement at Robert Morris, Calipari made no promises.

"We'll see, won't we?" he said.


When: 7:30 p.m. TuesdayWhere: Charles L. Sewall Center in Moon Township, Pa. TV: ESPN | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1Records: UK 21-11, Robert Morris 23-10Series: UK leads 1-0 | Last meeting: UK won 92-67 on Dec. 30, 1993

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: UKbasketball.bloginky.com.

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