John Clay: Cats on wrong side of history as post-season beckons

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 9, 2014 

This is the time of the season when you want to be playing your best basketball.

For the second year in a row, Kentucky is clearly not playing its best basketball.

Last year, the Cats had an excuse. John Calipari's team was 17-6 overall and 8-2 in the Southeastern Conference before Nerlens Noel tore his ACL at Florida. Starting with the loss to the Gators, the Cats went 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the SEC the rest of the way.

You know the story: After losing two of three to end the regular season, the Cats were bounced by Vanderbilt in the SEC opener and lost at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

This year, youth is the excuse. Never mind the recruiting hype and pre-season No. 1 ranking. Kentucky has been caught on the wrong side of history. Saturday was the latest example. Kentucky started four freshmen. Florida started four seniors. Florida won 84-65 to finish the SEC regular season 18-0.

A program that stresses "players first" has learned it is still about "team first."

Here's the question now: Can the Cats redeem themselves in the post-season?

"We've got to get the mojo going a little bit," Calipari said. "We've got to do it there."

History tells us — yes, even the great history of Kentucky basketball — that it is easier said than done.

To be sure, Calipari's 2010-11 team lost six conference games and found a way to make it all the way to the Final Four. That team was starting to play its best basketball in late February and early March, however. It won five of its last six regular-season games. The lone defeat was a one-point overtime loss at Arkansas.

It bounced back to beat Florida and Vandy at Rupp and Tennessee in Knoxville. It swept through the conference tournament, beating regular-season champ Florida in the finals. It then beat No. 1-ranked Ohio State and North Carolina to win the East Regional before a one-point loss to UConn in the national semifinal.

Kentucky's teams that have tried to catch fire come tournament time have mainly fizzled.

Tubby Smith's final Kentucky team, 2006-07, lost five of its last seven games in the regular season. It was bounced from the SEC Tournament by Mississippi State in the semifinals before losing to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Smith's 2005-06 team lost two of its final three regular-season games before losing to South Carolina in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament and later Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Smith's 2000-01 team lost two of its last three games, rebounded to win the SEC Tournament, but suffered a surprising Sweet 16 loss to Southern California in the NCAA Tournament.

Eddie Sutton's 1986-87 team finished the regular season with three losses in its last five games. The Cats were bounced by Auburn in their first game of the SEC Tournament, then lost to Ohio State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

A couple of Kentucky teams did, after late season stumbles, answer the post-season bell.

Joe B. Hall's last Kentucky team, his 1984-85 edition, dropped three of its final five games and lost to Florida in its SEC Tournament opener. A controversial NCAA pick with a 17-12 record, the Cats beat Washington and UNLV in the NCAA Tournament before losing in the Sweet 16 to Walter Berry, Chris Mullin and St. John's.

Smith's 1998-99 team, the defending national champions, lost four of its last seven games in the regular season, then won the SEC Tournament and reached the Elite Eight before losing to Michigan State.

That '98-99 team started three seniors, however, in Scott Padgett, Heshimu Evans and Wayne Turner. The '84-85 team had a scoring machine in junior forward Kenny Walker and an experienced point guard in junior Roger Harden.

Experience matters.

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

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