Who could blame Kentucky basketball coach John Calpari if he never, ever, not in a million years, not for any reason whatsoever, wants to step foot back in the Rocky Top house of horrors that for him is Thompson-Boling Arena.
You think the orange crush of a 71-52 loss that Calipari’s catatonic Cats suffered Saturday was bad? Where this gym is concerned, it was more of the same, my friend, more of the same. Three years ago, the basketball Cats had a six-point halftime lead and lost by seven. Two years ago, they lost by a bucket. Last year, they led by eight at the break and lost by 11.
This year, Tennessee dispensed with the suspense. Rick Barnes’ Vols led at the beginning, and in the middle (37-24 at the half) and down the stretch (a 19-point win, not counting Admiral Schofield’s jam just a tick after the final buzzer) to hand the Cats their fifth loss of the season and their fourth consecutive loss at Tennessee.
“We didn’t have it,” Calipari stated matter-of-factly afterward.
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Individually, what the Cats didn’t have was Reid Travis, the senior bruiser who played a major role in UK’s 86-69 thumping of Tennessee two weeks back at Rupp Arena. It was Travis who held UT star Grant Williams in check as UK snapped the Vols’ 19-game win streak. Alas, next time out, Travis suffered a right knee sprain at Missouri. He has missed three straight games since.
You could make the case, however, that Saturday had more to do with what Tennessee had than what Kentucky did not. We’re talking revenge. Pure, unadulterated, motivational revenge. “I thought they were more inspired,” said Calipari of the Vols.
Indeed, Big Orange Nation couldn’t wait to see the tables turned on their rivals to the north. Students camped out overnight. (They still do that?) Nearly every arena seat was filled by someone dressed in orange. I’ve been coming to Knoxville for a lot of years, and Saturday was the smallest UK contingent of fans there I’ve witnessed. Blue didn’t get in, or not much of it.
Then PJ Washington got in foul trouble. That would be the same sophomore forward who scored 23 points in that first meeting with Tennessee. Washington picked up his second foul with 8:23 left in the first half. As expected, Calipari put his star on the bench. Then in a move to be debated, Calipari left him there. “I thought about it,” said Cal when asked if he considered putting Washington back in the game.
Too late. UT outscored UK 17-6 the rest of the half. Out of sorts and out of sync, the Cats kept throwing up bad shot after bad shot. Kentucky shot an abysmal 23.1 percent from the floor the first half; 31.8 percent for the game.
“For the first game in a long time, we didn’t play for each other,” said Calipari. “This team has to play for each other.”
All this caused Calipari to, on occasion, lose his mind. He picked up a technical foul. And during one timeout, he appeared to be particularly unhappy with freshman guard Tyler Herro.
“I’m telling him what to do and he’s choosing not to do it,” the coach explained later. “Why would you do that? First of all, you say it in the huddle. Then you say it nicely. Then you go and (do) what I did. On the fifth time, you tell them very aggressively that, ‘It ain’t happening.’”
Before Saturday, the Cats appeared in good shape for a No. 1 seed in the ultimate happening that is the NCAA Tournament. Now? Cal dismissed the notion Saturday’s loss dropped his team from top-seed contention. Still, a 19-point loss never helps.
The good news? There are still more games to play. Two in the regular season. The SEC Tournament. Then there’s the Big Dance, which the last time I checked is not coming anywhere near Rocky Top. Surely, John Calipari approves.