The Kentucky Wildcats looked, distressingly, like an NIT team last week. Still, after the first SEC loss in Rupp Arena of the John Calipari era, the Cats issued assurances Saturday they ARE going to be in the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13.
"I don't think that's gonna be a problem," sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow said. "We still have a lot of time and we still have a lot of games. Coach is going to figure this out."
Said freshman big man Nerlens Noel, simply: "We're good."
Added freshman guard Archie Goodwin: "We still have a lot of season left. ... We still have the likes of Missouri and Florida to play. We still have a lot of room for growth."
OK, it may be too soon to push the panic button for Kentucky, but it's darned sure time for the Cats to find an urgency switch. The Cats' season is teetering toward the brink.
Texas A&M senior swingman Elston Turner turned in one of the great individual performances in Rupp Arena history, scoring 40 points on 14-of-19 shooting (6 of 10 three-pointers) to lead the Aggies to an 83-71 victory in their first visit to Lexington as a member of the SEC.
In losing, Kentucky (10-5, 1-1 SEC) wasted a wonderful all-around performance from freshman big man Noel — 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocked shots, six assists, four steals.
In Thursday's great escape victory in Nashville, Kentucky lost all of a 47-31 second-half lead by allowing Vanderbilt to go on an 18-0 run.
Despite Turner's game-long brilliance Saturday, UK led Texas A&M 62-58 with 6:10 left — only to allow the Aggies to whip off a 16-1 streak.
"I talked to the team (Friday) about gut time, stop the runs, stop the bleeding," Calipari said. "And they were listening to what I was saying but I don't think they were hearing. ... Because we had Maryland do it to us; we had Duke do it to us; we had Vanderbilt the other night do it to us ... and this team went on a 16-1 run. And you're not winning that way."
Having the same problems over and over is starting to be a theme of this UK season.
Obviously, the Cats have not learned how to stem opponents' runs. They have not established an offensive identity. Calipari is still imploring freshman forward Alex Poythress for more intensity and Goodwin to play under more control.
UK still does not always respond when opponents go bully-boy on them and try to push them around. Apparently, following scouting reports is problematic, too.
Harrow said Calipari and Kentucky had a good plan for guarding A&M's Elston Turner, whose father of the same name is a former standout at Mississippi and now an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns.
"Coach was telling us if (Turner) is driving right, it means he's going to pull up. If he's going left, it means he's going to step back," Harrow said. "And if he's facing up, it means he's going to try to do a cross over. But Coach told us, he never goes to the hole, so we need to play him tight. But we didn't."
Poythress started the game with the assignment on Turner, and the A&M senior scored seven points by the first TV timeout.
Fueled by that start, Turner got into the proverbial "zone." UK ultimately tried Poythress, Goodwin, 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and even a 2-3 zone to try to stop Turner.
Obviously, not much worked.
"Kentucky is young and you can see it, and fortunately we were able to take advantage of that," said Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy, the ex-Murray State head man.
There is obviously ample time for Kentucky to right its ship and build an NCAA Tournament-worthy résumé. In Noel and Cauley-Stein, the Cats have length and abundant energy on the front line. Harrow (14 points, but five turnovers) is emerging at the point.
Yet the putrid state of SEC basketball is not an aid to UK's tourney hopes. The Cats' best non-league victory, Maryland, came over a foe ranked No. 86 according to realtimerpi.com.
Of 14 SEC teams, only two, No. 11 Florida and No. 22 Missouri, are in the top 45 in the RPI. Five SEC teams are ranked No. 149 or lower.
So UK has only three opportunities for head-turning victories — two games with the Gators, and a Rupp visit from Mizzou. All other SEC games carry the potential to be perceived as "bad losses."
Asked Saturday if he had begun to worry about UK's NCAA tourney prospects, Calipari said, "I think we'll be fine. ... But you've got to win games."
Starting soon would be good.