ATHENS, Ga. — Kentucky went into the Georgia game with its collective back against the metaphorical wall.
ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes put that widespread belief into words.
"Kentucky is in 'can't-lose' mode," Dykes said earlier Thursday. Then UK lost at Georgia 72-62.
The regular season's final week contains two potentially bubble-bursting games for Kentucky, Dykes said. To keep its hopes of a NCAA Tournament bid alive, Kentucky had to win at Georgia and then play a competitive game against Southeastern Conference regular-season champion Florida on Saturday.
"If they show well against Florida, perception-wise, it's helpful going into next week (and the SEC Tournament)," Dykes said.
Of course, the best-case scenario for Kentucky would be to beat Florida, which has been a good-but-not-dominant 5-3 in SEC road games. That would give Kentucky an attention-getting victory.
"How many teams have they beaten that are sure to be in the NCAA Tournament?" Dykes said before answering his own question. "One. That's not good. That's not the spot you want to be in going into (a league tournament)."
That lone victory came against Missouri at home.
Presuming a victory at Georgia, Dykes cited factors that work in Kentucky's favor. For one thing, an NCAA Tournament bid remains plausible, he said.
"A lot of teams have no hope," Dykes said. "I'd say Kentucky is two wins away: Tonight (at Georgia) and Saturday. . . .
"Kentucky is a quality-win away. They have to beat someone (a quality opponent) without Nerlens Noel."
Archie Goodwin suggested that Kentucky needs a much greater effort against Florida.
"If we don't play better against Florida, we'll get embarrassed," he said.
Georgia Coach Mark Fox recoiled from the suggestion that his team KO'd Kentucky's NCAA Tournament chances.
"I get no joy in that," he said "This is the SEC. I think Kentucky belongs in the tournament. You can say what you want about all the other teams around the country, but this league is relatively young. . . . We're just young. It doesn't mean our league's not talented, it's just young. It's gotten better and better and no one wants to play Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament.
"I wouldn't want to play Kentucky. But they belong in there. Teams in this league are a lot better than the respect they're getting from the national media and hopefully we'll have a chance to prove that."
Not a bad loss?
Georgia went into the game with a 2-6 record against the top seven teams in the SEC and a 6-2 record against the bottom six. The Bulldogs' previous two victories against the SEC's upper echelon both came against Tennessee. In the first meeting, UT played without point guard Trae Golden (hamstring).
"We didn't start the season well, but if you look over the last five or six weeks, we've got a pretty good basketball team, right now," Fox said. "We're pretty competitive. We've got a ways to go. I'm not saying we've arrived. I'm not saying we've done anything, but we've become a better basketball team and I don't think a loss to us should be considered a bad loss."
'It's about us'
With its only player with a double-digit scoring average, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, making six of 19 shots, Georgia seemed vulnerable. But Kentucky could not take advantage of his poor shooting.
"Frankly, I didn't try to feed into their team," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "I was more focused on us competing. I don't even care about the other team. Whoever we play, it's about us."
Kentucky may be a pale imitation of its usual self, but a victory over UK apparently remains a thrill.
"Huge," Georgia center John Florveus said. "Kentucky's still a great team, a great program, a powerhouse program. They've been winning for years. ... It's a great feeling."
UK Coach John Calipari saluted the coaching job done by Georgia's Mark Fox. He said Fox and LSU's Johnny Jones deserved consideration for SEC Coach of the Year.
"One coach I know it's not," he said in reference to himself.
Former player Jonas Hayes is Georgia's operations coordinator. His twin brother, Jarvis Hayes, is playing in Israel, he said. . . . Georgia issued passes to 22 NBA scouts.