By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Ryan Harrow says he doesn’t even think about Kentucky not making the NCAA Tournament and is not about to start thinking about it. Well, maybe he better because after UK’s 83-71 loss here Saturday to underdog Texas A&M, coach John Calipari at least hinted that the Wildcats better understand making the NCAA Tournament one year after the Cats won the national championship is not a given.
Calipari stressed that UK lacked the “will to win” because it didn’t have the discipline required to make defensive stops after taking a 62-58 lead with 5 minutes, 51 seconds to play after Nerlens Noel created two straight turnovers that the Cats turned into points to take the lead. But Texas A&M made its last 10 shots — UK made only two of its last 10 — to stun the Cats.
“I am just hope we are winning enough games as we learn how to do this,” said Calipari.
Who would have ever thought that when the season opened? Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class and was ranked in the preseason top five (a spot Calipari warned was way too high). Growing pains were expected, but not that UK would be 10-5 and have only one quality win against Maryland.
Could Kentucky miss the NCAA? Absolutely, and Calipari knows it even if his players don’t.
“I think we will be fine, but no, you have got to win games. For us going forward, each game we play we just have got to worry about being the best team in the gym. We don’t need to worry about anybody else. Just be the best team in the gym and do what we are suppowed to be doing,” Calipari said. “As a coach, this one is done. We have another game Tuesday (against Tennessee).
“I think we showed fight. I think we showed fire. We are getting tougher. We shot 77 percent from the free throw line. But a lot of good is taken away with four minutes to go when we take chances on defense, start fouling and on offense you’re trying to make too hard a play. That takes away all of your effort for 30-some minutes.”
The game’s best player was Texas A&M’s Elston Turner. The guard came into the game averaging 15.5 points per game. He had 25 in the first half and finished with 40 in 37 minutes of flawless play. He hit shots that UK couldn’t defend as he was 14-for-19 from the field.
But here’s the disturbing part.
“He shot the ball well and he got good looks,” winning coach Billy Kennedy said. “He got opportunities to score. Kentucky is young and you can see it and fortunately we were able to take advantage.”
Did they ever as Turner just kept shooting and scoring.
Calipari opened the game with Alex Poythress guarding him, a move Calipari said his staff talked him into making and was a mistake.
“I didn’t want to do it and it was my decision,” Calipari said. “It was a mistake. Because from that point on, he was getting 50 (points). Stupid on my part to do that.
“He’s not ready to guard a kid like that. He’s just not. Doesn’t have the intensity. You’ve got to have an unbelievable fight in you to guard a guy like that to have pride that you’re not going to do this to me. And he may have done it any way to be honest. It may not have mattered who guarded him. But when you start that way, making every shot … now you’re feeling pretty good.”
It was better than good. Texas A&M players danced off the court like youngsters getting from opening presents from Santa Claus on Christmas Day.
Still, as good as Turner was — he called it “by far the best performance I’ve ever had” — the Cats overcame a 40-31 deficit early in the second half to take the 62-58 lead. That’s when two huge weaknesses on this team became obvious.
First, UK does not have a shutdown defender, especially late in the game, like it had with DeAndre Liggins two years ago or Michael Kidd-Gilchirst last year. Second, UK does not have a go-to scorer like John Wall, Brandon Knight or one of several players last year in clutch situations. That’s a fatal combination in close games.
Texas A&M went on a 16-1 run after UK took the 62-58 lead. Maryland, Duke, Morehead and Vanderbilt have had similar big runs — something that never happened last season.
“When teams go on runs, there’s a difference between a veteran team going on a run as opposed to a younger team going on runs,” Turner said.
Translation: A veteran team knows it must stop the run quickly with smart decisions and execution.
Calipari said he talked to his team Friday about “gut time, stop the run, stop the bleeding.” It apparently was a message not heard very well.
“They were listening to what I was saying, but I don’t think they heard me,” Calipari said.
They better start hearing. Texas A&M is not Duke. It’s not Louisville. The Aggies lost 70-49 to St. Louis. They lost 53-51 to Southern. They have eight scholarship players and used a walk-on (Jarod Johns) for 30 minutes Saturday.
Calipari said there’s only one thing for his players to do if they want to become better.
“Accept what you did,” Calipari said.
He said if the players do that and then come together, he still “likes my team” and what it can do.
“What happens as our team doesn’t do well, each individual players starts, like you start questioning each guy,” the coach said. “That’s what happens. Fans, media and everybody else. And that’s why thy need to come together, to stay together, to keep working through it.”
He’s right about the questions. There’s a slew of them about this team.
And maybe, just maybe, way too much was expected of this team.
“I don’t think so. Or at least I don’t want to believe that,” Harrow said.