Sidelines with John Clay

Can Kentucky basketball rekindle its spirit in St. Louis? It won’t be easy.

Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari grimaced during his team’s 80-67 loss to the Florida Gators Saturday in Exactech Arena at the O'Connell Center.
Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari grimaced during his team’s 80-67 loss to the Florida Gators Saturday in Exactech Arena at the O'Connell Center. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Getting slashed and gashed Saturday in the Sunshine State surely cracked Kentucky basketball’s confidence heading into this week’s SEC Tournament in St. Louis. And March is not the time for a head full of doubt.

Yet this is exactly where John Calipari’s Cats find themselves after the 80-67 airball at Florida’s O’Connell Center. Kentucky rolled into Gainesville brandishing a four-game win streak. They departed having finished 10-8 in conference play.

Saturday night, after Missouri’s win over visiting Arkansas, the Cats learned they are the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, their postseason play starting Friday afternoon at the ScottTrade Center.

Yet if the recent win streak raised the hopes of the Big Blue Nation concerning the team’s tournament future, Saturday’s outcome might have popped the balloon. It wasn’t that Kentucky lost. You knew Florida, on Senior Day, would be a tough nut to crack. It was the way Kentucky lost, down 15 at halftime, down by as many as 23 in the second half.

“We dug ourselves too big a hole,” said UK coach John Calipari afterward.

So, can the Cats recapture their winning spirit in St. Louis? It won’t be easy. After all, they finished 1-6 against the league’s top five seeds: 0-1 vs. No. 1 Auburn; 0-2 vs. No. 2 Tennessee; 0-2 vs. No. 3 Florida; 1-1 vs. No. 5 Missouri.

Fortunately, at least for the Cats, Tennessee and Florida are on the opposite side of the bracket breakdown. If seeds hold, UK would play Missouri on Friday afternoon, then top-seeded Auburn in Saturday’s semifinals. After a 69-60 loss in Columbia, the Cats handled Missouri 87-66 in Rupp Arena 10 days ago. And despite its co-champ accomplishment, Auburn staggered to the finish line.

Since losing Anfernee McLemore, the SEC’s leading shot blocker, to a broken leg, Auburn had gone 1-3 before defeating South Carolina on Saturday to clinch the top spot. Pearl’s club did beat a visiting UK 76-66 on Feb. 14, but Kentucky actually led 59-55 with 7:04 left before letting go of the rope.

They never touched the rope Saturday. Using UK guard Quade Green’s “we need to spank them” comment as fuel, the Gators went on a 14-3 first half run that led to a 48-33 halftime lead and never looked back.

Kentucky’s offensive improvement that prompted the win streak vanished in Gatorland. UK shot just 41.4 percent and committed 13 turnovers compared to six assists. There was too much standing and not enough passing. Hamidou Diallo missed all seven of his shots. Jarred Vanderbilt wasn’t his usual self on the boards.

Even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who led the Cats with 17 points, was knocked by Calipari afterward for his five turnovers.

Afterward, freshman PJ Washington dismissed the result as a bump in the road, saying the team would regroup and make a March run. And, as we know, there is precedent for that. The 2013-14 team lost by 19 at Florida in the regular-season finale, before a famous “tweak” took Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison twins as a No. 8 seed all the way to the NCAA title game.

That was a different team in a different year. And you have to wonder about the aftershocks of Saturday’s performance, whether a step back might have zapped the effect of so many previous steps forward.

True, in the postgame press conference, Calipari again dismissed the importance of the conference tournament. He’s consistent. That has been the coach’s stance since he arrived at Kentucky, but you wonder if this young team might be the exception that proves the rule, one that needs a strong showing in St. Louis just to get its confidence back.

After all, Selection Sunday is a week away.

SEC Tournament

Kentucky’s next game: 3:25 p.m. Friday in St. Louis (ESPN)

The Cats’ opponent: No. 12-seeded Georgia and No. 13 Vanderbilt play Wednesday with the winner advancing to face No. 5 Missouri on Thursday. No. 4-seeded UK plays the winner of that game.

SEC men’s basketball standings

Team

SEC

Overall

Auburn

13-5

25-6

Tennessee

13-5

23-7

Florida

11-7

20-11

Kentucky

10-8

21-10

Missouri

10-8

20-11

Arkansas

10-8

21-10

Miss State

9-9

21-10

Texas A&M

9-9

20-11

Alabama

8-10

17-14

LSU

8-10

17-13

South Carolina

7-11

16-15

Georgia

7-11

16-14

Vanderbilt

6-12

12-19

Ole Miss

5-13

12-19

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