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By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE — Does Kentucky belong in the NCAA Tournament?
“I don’t know. When you play a game like this, it hurts you,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari after Friday’s 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “But the good news is everyone else is losing, too. So at the end of the day, it will shake out and I trust the (NCAA selection) committee to put the right teams in.
“If we’re in, we’ll play better, and if we’re not, we’re not. I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it. We had an opportunity, it was in our hands to take it out of everybody’s hands and we didn’t take care of business.”
Kentucky was coming off a win over Florida and also had a late-season win over Missouri as well as respectable losses to Duke and Louisville early in the season. But the Cats have lost their last four games away from Rupp Arena by big margins after a season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel and missed a chance to put themselves firmly into the tournament with a win over Vanderbilt. Instead, Kentucky has a 21-11 record and second place finish in the SEC that might not be enough to make the tourney field Sunday night.
“The next two days are definitely going to be agonizing. We are all going to be a little worried,” UK freshman Archie Goodwin said. “This didn’t help us at all, and really hurt us. I know for a fact this really hurt us. We just have to hope that things go our way and teams that need to lose do lose so that we get in.”
About two hours later, Mississippi rallied to beat Missouri and the Rebels, who lost at home to UK, probably vaulted over UK into the NCAA field.
“We just have to hope and pray whatever happens happens the right way for us. I don’t think it is looking too good for us. Hopefully we are able to get in because I think if we get in the tournament things will turn around for us,” Goodwin said. “We understood we needed to win but the other team came out a lot more fired up than we were and they just came out to play harder and outworked us throughout the whole game and that is why we lost.
“I never imagined us not going to the NCAA. I imagined us playing here Sunday (in the SEC title game) from the beginning, but that is not going to happen. We didn’t do the things necessary to win. That is why we are in this situation we are in now.”
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer was on UK’s national championship team last season. He tried to put the best spin possible on UK’s NCAA chances.
“Our season is not over. We just have to stay positive individually and keep working hard. It is out of our control right now. We will see what happens,” Wiltjer said. “We can just get back in the gym and keep working hard. That is the best way to forget about something like this.
“It will be extremely difficult the next two days just knowing how bad we played individually. It will be difficult waiting to see if our name will be called or not (to be in the tournament). Regardless of the situation, we just want to keep practicing hard and bringing that energy.”
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein thinks UK deserves to be in the tournament.
“We beat Florida. We beat Missouri. We beat Ole Miss. Missouri’s in it. They’re a lock. We beat them. Florida’s a lock. We beat them. And Ole Miss is on the bubble, so we showed we can beat anybody,” Cauley-Stein said.
However, UK couldn’t beat Vanderbilt and that is why the Cats are now a questionable bubble team even for the NCAA field.
“We had our opportunities to keep it in our hands, but we didn’t seize the moment and take advantage of it,” UK guard Julius Mays said. “All we can do is sit and wait.”
“I just hope we’re the best of the bad right now,” Calipari said. “That’s what I’m hoping.”