UK basketball notebook: Cats' NIT trip to Robert Morris caught everyone off guard

Herald-Leader Staff WriterMarch 23, 2013 

Win or lose the final game, Kentucky seasons often end with an exclamation point. But the punctuation on 2012-13 seems to be a question mark.

Why? Why did Kentucky finish the season at Robert Morris on Tuesday? Why didn't Kentucky play host to the Colonials in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament?

Even Robert Morris was puzzled by being asked to be a first-round site. When word began spreading last Sunday night that (1) Kentucky would not play a home game in the first round of the NIT and (2) that Robert Morris might play the Cats on its Moon Township, Pa., campus, the reaction was disbelief. Even at Robert Morris.

"C'mon, that's silly," Robert Morris Athletics Director Craig Coleman remembered thinking.

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart noted several factors that made playing the first-round game here impractical. The most obvious is that Rupp Arena was taken. UK had been working for a few years on playing host to the NCAA Tournament second- and third-round games last week. The idea of a home game in the NIT never crossed anyone's mind. The NCAA offered to work with Kentucky to find a way to make Rupp Arena available. But there wasn't a lot of wiggle room.

"We'd be as flexible as we could be," said Dan Gavitt, one of the NCAA Tournament directors, "without disrupting things too much."

Moving the NCAA games from Thursday-Saturday to Friday-Sunday?

"Definitely not," Gavitt said. "That could never happen."

The NCAA wanted Rupp Arena available all week, first for the setup of the court and advertising signage, then on Wednesday for eight team practices and eight interview sessions.

Of course, Kentucky played UNLV in Memorial Coliseum to open the 2009 NIT. But Barnhart noted that it was spring break that week four years ago. Students were not on campus, so more parking was available. Plus, construction at the former site of the Wildcat Lodge and the presence of the new Wildcat Coal Lodge further restricted parking last week.

Properly staffing an NIT game also presented a problem. Counting 14 students, UK had assigned 44 staffers and volunteers to work with the NCAA Tournament's media relations. Then there are ticket office personnel, training staff, medical people and the Committee of 101 ushers.

UK fans volunteered to work an NIT game, but Barnhart did not like the idea of rushing together a volunteer staff that had not been properly trained.

"We didn't feel we had enough resources left to treat it appropriately," Barnhart said of an NIT game.

Conspiracy theorists wondered if UK Coach John Calipari orchestrated the whole thing. He wanted to get the season over with. So he set up the circumstances for Kentucky to fail.

"No, I wanted to keep coaching them," he said when asked if the loss to Robert Morris brought relief. "The reason is that maybe the light bulb goes on for Alex (Poythress), for Archie (Goodwin), for Kyle (Wiltjer). When it does, and they feel it, it's good for them."

The head of the NIT, former Kentucky athletics director C.M. Newton, scoffed at the notion of Calipari pulling the strings for a trip to his hometown. Robert Morris was simply closer to UK than the other possible first-round opponent, Charleston Southern, Newton said. If the better-seeded team does not want to be host, the duty shifts to the lesser-seeded team.

Interestingly, Robert Morris was not thrilled about playing in the NIT, either. The Colonials won the Northeast Conference's regular-season title and expected to play in the NCAA Tournament.

"If you're in a one-bid league, the NIT is a decent consolation," Coleman said.

Decent became unforgettable for Robert Morris once the NIT made the matchup. This hit home for Coleman when more than 1,000 fans entered the Robert Morris gym once the doors opened two hours before tip-off. Eventually, a record crowd watched something memorable unfold.

"This has become The Rocky Horror Picture Show of college basketball," Coleman said he thought. "It's become a cult game."

For Kentucky, it seemed a fitting ending to a fitful season.

"The pieces didn't line up for us this season," Barnhart said. "And that was probably the finishing piece."

Alternate universe

It became apparent before entering the Charles L. Sewall Center on Tuesday that Kentucky's game at Robert Morris would mean entering an alternate basketball universe. Robert Morris did not charge for parking. What?!

The game was the biggest event ever on campus. Parking is limited. Simple supply and demand — if not college athletics' ceaseless quest for dollars — mandated that Robert Morris officials charge exorbitant prices.

"We thought about it," Athletics Director Craig Coleman said Thursday. " ... 'Our fans expect (free parking) so we're not going to charge.' So we just didn't."

Playing Kentucky in the NIT enriched Robert Morris in other ways.

"The real value is not revenue," Coleman said. "It was putting us on the map."

Coleman noted how ESPN opened its SportsCenter on Tuesday night with a report from Robert Morris. The school's admissions office was "flooded with calls" the next morning, he said.

"Very intoxicating," Coleman said of the attention paid to the Colonials. "It does wonders for the name recognition of a university. ... not having to introduce the school from the baseline of zero."

Coleman knows about recruiting advantages. He coaches the school's softball team and is a child psychiatrist (alternate universe alert: he has the initials M.D. at the end of his name on the Robert Morris athletics directory).

Road kill

Again and again, the chair of the Selection Committee stressed the importance of road victories in picking at-large teams for the NCAA Tournament. There's not a single standard that teams must meet to receive a bid (if there was, why would we even need a Selection Committee?). There's some subjectivity involved. But winning away from home apparently is a must.

"I do look at road wins," Mike Bobinski said on the Wednesday before Selection Sunday. "When it comes to making distinctions, that's one indication of a team's strengths."

In explaining why Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed, Bobinski noted that the Zags were 16-1 away from home (10-1 on opponents' courts, 6-0 at neutral sites). "That was spectacular," he said.

Losses away from Rupp Arena down the stretch killed Kentucky's chances at a bid. Counting the game in which Nerlens Noel tore an ACL, Kentucky suffered:

■ The second-most lopsided loss ever to Florida.

■ The most lopsided loss to Tennessee.

■ The most lopsided loss to Arkansas since 2000.

■ The first loss to Georgia by a double-digit margin since 1990.

■ The second-most lopsided loss in the SEC Tournament.

No wonder Kentucky accepted being bypassed by the Selection Committee without complaint.

Student glee

Robert Morris students all but rubbed their eyes in disbelief as Kentucky warmed up to play their Colonials in the NIT.

"Incredible," said Ben McNally, a senior from DuBois, Pa., who sat, er, stood bare-chested in the front row at center court.

Even the idea of UK playing at Robert Morris seemed farfetched. When word began spreading of the Cats playing in Moon Township, Pa., McNally said he thought, "Why would they want to come here?"

At tip-off, Kentucky found itself in a charged environment.

"It means everything to us," McNally said, "and nothing to them."

It's not easy

After the loss at Robert Morris, Alex Poythress noted how the 2011-12 Cats were a tough act to follow.

"Last year's team was so good," he said. "They made it look so easy. In reality, it's not. There's so much hard work you have to put in."

'Cleansing moment'

Mike Bobinski, who is also the athletics director at Xavier, acknowledged that college basketball is losing appeal. But he balked recently when a reporter suggested the game was "in shambles."

However you assess the state of college basketball, the NCAA Tournament comes along in the nick of time.

"The tournament will play a tremendous role," Bobinski said. "Restoring a good feeling. It's a cleansing moment."

Father-son

Butler guard Rotnei Clarke, who began his college career at Arkansas, said his father, Conley, played college basketball. His uncles coach basketball.

"I really didn't have a choice," he said with a smile. "I was going to play basketball. ...

"I remember fighting with my dad, going home crying in the fourth or fifth grade. Because of how hard he was on me."

Like his son, Conley Clarke was a shooter.

"He actually beats me still," Rotnei said. "I hate to admit it."

Exit eight

As sportswriter Ron Higgins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal noted, Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy flirted with the wrong kind of history.

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no SEC coach had lasted beyond seven seasons without making the NCAA Tournament. Dale Brown at LSU and C.M. Newton at both Alabama and Vanderbilt got their first NCAA bids in their seventh seasons as coach.

Kennedy got the Rebels to this year's NCAA Tournament in his seventh season as coach.

Numerology

UK fans Robert and Shirley Holman hoped for an omen at the SEC Tournament. They said they stayed in Room 317 in their Nashville hotel. Their seats in Bridgestone Arena were in Section 317.

Of course, that proved to be coincidental. Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt in its first game.

Well said

Joe DeGregorio, who coached John Calipari at Clarion State way back when, summed up Kentucky's season of struggle.

"As they say in the vernacular, (stuff) happens," he said.

The end

The loss at Robert Morris served as a fitting punctuation on UK's season.

"The same thing has been happening all year," Julius Mays said. "No fight. No toughness. Just soft. Playing careless. Not thinking of the team."

In other words, same old-same old.

"Kind of ended on a note of what we've been talking about," Coach John Calipari said. "You can't win playing that way."

Happy birthday

To Darius Miller. He turned 23 on Thursday. ... To Mike Phillips. He turns 57 on Sunday. ... To Todd Bearup. He turns 46 on Monday. ... To Troy McKinley. He turned 50 on Thursday. ... To Wayne Turner. He turned 37 on Friday.

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

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