NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the old movie 48 Hours, cop Nick Nolte has to meet and befriend convict Eddie Murphy. Nolte needs Murphy’s help to find a killer. The two must bond, navigate the nightlife of San Francisco, dodge bullets and, in Nolte’s case, a girlfriend that felt neglected. All in a two-day period.
That's a piece of cake compared to what Kentucky faces until the Selection Sunday show.
A 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt Friday night in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals left UK with 48 hours to fill. The Cats had time to ponder a trouble-filled season, their failure in a must-win game and the possible ignominy of not receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
To help fill the time, Julius Mays said he’d do homework rather than watch other so-called “bubble” teams influence Kentucky’s post-season fate. So, homework, the bane of a college student’s life, is better than basketball?
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“I wouldn’t say it’s better,” he said. “But I’ve got quite a bit to get done.”
It was widely believed that Kentucky (21-11) had to beat Vanderbilt to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Instead, the Cats find themselves in a peculiar and vulnerable position.
“I’ve always been part of teams where we’re sitting and waiting to see where we’re supposed to be,” junior Jon Hood said. “What one-seed are they supposed to be?”
The loss of control irked the UK players. They can only sit and wait and hope.
“It (stinks),” Mays said. “But there’s nothing I can do about it. We had the opportunity to keep it in our hands. But we didn’t seize the moment and take advantage of it.”
Hood echoed Mays’ philosophical point of view.
“We can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Before we could do something about it. Everybody wants to control their own fate. . . . We can’t do anything about it, now.”
Kentucky’s many freshmen seemed unsure of what to do next. They had never before been in NCAA Tournament limbo.
Willie Cauley-Stein boiled it down to the essentials.
“Hopefully, the teams we need to lose, lose,” he said, “and the teams we need to win, win.”
That plea for help took a hit later in the night when Ole Miss rallied to beat snake-bit Missouri in the SEC Tournament’s final quarter-final game.
“We were on Death Row,” Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said of his team’s sense of urgency, “and we knew it.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky waits for a call from the governor commuting its death sentence.
When asked what case for Kentucky’s inclusion he would make to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, the always cooperative Cauley-Stein obliged.
“When everybody plays as a team and does what they’re supposed to do, we can beat anybody,” he said.
Cauley-Stein noted victories over Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss. All three figure to be in the NCAA Tournament.
“Florida is a lock, and we beat them,” he said. “Missouri is a lock, and we beat them. . . .
“It’s just the fact when we come out and play like we know how.”
Mays suggested a bottom-line appeal to the Selection Committee. “I don’t think there are (68) teams better,” he said.
Kentucky’s record away from Rupp Arena without Nerlens Noel throws that contention into doubt. The Cats lost all five games away from home without Noel by double-digit margins. That had happened to the proud program only once: in 1910. The five losses came by an average margin of 17.2 points.
When asked to explain the road losses, Hood cited Noel’s absence. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen in person,” he said. “One of the best players I’ve ever had on my team.”
But the players suggested that more than Noel’s absence hurt Kentucky down the stretch.
“We didn’t show the right effort,” Kyle Wiltjer said before adding a few moments later, “We didn’t play as a team tonight.”
Hood said much the same thing.
“We should have come together better, but we didn’t,” he said. “Now, we’re suffering from it.”