John Clay

Kentucky basketball’s season is officially on the brink

This Kentucky men’s basketball team has officially reached the danger zone.

After Saturday’s 85-74 loss at Texas A&M, it is in danger of John Calipari’s first four-game losing streak as a coach since 2004-05.

At 6-6 in the Southeastern Conference, it is in danger of suffering its first losing season in league play since the NCAA investigation season of 1988-89.

Without a sudden about-face or run in the conference tournament, it is danger of starting the season No. 5 in the AP preseason poll and ending it with the three letters that strikes fear in the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere — NIT.

Last but not least, it is in danger of promoting the absurd notion that Calipari has peaked as Kentucky coach, that his one-and-done strategy has run its course, that it’s time for something new and different and closer to a traditional philosophy.

Give me a break. Let’s run the numbers. In eight seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has won a national title, been to four Final Fours and six Elite Eights. A Luke Maye buzzer-beater kept him from a fifth Final Four last year. I wouldn’t want to be the coach who follows Calipari at Kentucky. I’d want to be the coach who follows the coach that follows Calipari at Kentucky.

As for this season, a perfect storm has thrown the Cats on the rocks. No. 1, Calipari’s collection of freshmen is not as talented as his previous conglomerations. No. 2, the SEC is much stronger than it has been in recent years. That’s a bad mix. At least it’s a bad mix for the Cats.

This is not to completely absolve Calipari of blame. He’s the head coach, after all. He recruited the current roster. He is also the man who sets the tone for the program.

When you recruit players who openly proclaim their No. 1 goal is to get to the NBA, some are going to make the jump to the NBA before they’re ready. That can leave gaps in a team’s roster. To this point, Calipari had been able to avoid that pitfall. This year, his luck ran out. It happens.

“Kentucky is so young,” said Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy on Saturday. “I thought they made the mistakes that young teams make.”

In that respect, we’re beyond spoiled around these parts. Since his arrival on campus in 2009, Calipari’s greatest strength — even more so than his recruiting — has been his ability to get heralded AAU stars to both play to their ability and to play together. As he said Saturday, this year he hasn’t been able “to get over the hump” in that regard.

Maybe, as in 2011 and 2014, the coach can find a way to turn this car around, but I doubt it. The 2011 Final Four team had experienced in Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins and a scorer in Brandon Knight. The 2014 team got hot at the right time and rode an improbable string of clutch Aaron Harrison shots all the way to the championship game.

It will be much tougher to catch lightning in a bottle this time around. If you dare, look at the remaining regular-season dance card. Auburn is 22-3. Alabama trounced Tennessee 78-50 on Saturday. Calipari is 1-3 at Arkansas. Missouri has won four straight, including a nine-point win over the Cats. UK should beat Ole Miss, but the Cats finish up at Florida.

A 3-3 mark over the final six will take some doing. A 4-2 mark looks miraculous. A 2-4 record is much more likely. That would leave the Cats 8-10 in the SEC. Minus a surge in St. Louis at the conference tournament, a losing conference mark might leave them out of the Big Dance.

The dangerous reality: To avoid its worst SEC season since Eddie Sutton’s final scandal-ridden campaign, Kentucky has to find a way to win a couple of games that on paper look very much like defeats.

I don’t see that happening.

Next game

No. 24 Kentucky at No. 8 Auburn

9 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2)

SEC men’s basketball standings

Team

SEC

Overall

Auburn

10-2

22-3

Tennessee

8-4

18-6

Florida

8-4

17-8

Missouri

7-5

17-8

Alabama

7-5

16-9

Miss. State

6-6

18-7

Kentucky

6-6

17-8

Arkansas

6-6

17-8

Texas A&M

6-6

17-8

LSU

5-7

14-10

Georgia

4-8

13-11

South Carolina

4-8

13-12

Ole Miss

4-8

11-14

Vanderbilt

3-9

9-16

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