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By LARRY VAUGHT
When Georgia coach Mark Fox looks at Kentucky, he doesn’t see the team that many feel is on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament one year after winning the national championship.
Instead, he sees a team having a “postseason kind of year” for coach John Calipari despite UK’s recent losses at Tennessee and Arkansas since the season-ending injury suffered by center Nerlens Noel.
“First of all they’re the defending national champions. I think John’s done a terrific job in rebuilding a team after all that they lost and obviously they’ve had a terrible injury in the middle of the season (to Noel),” said Fox. “But Kentucky still has a very good basketball team, a team that’s won 20 games, a team that’s in second place in the league. There is a lot of pluses there that still exist and that’s why I say that (about a postseason kind of year).”
Yet with regular season games left at Georgia Thursday and at home Saturday against Florida, most college basketball analysts don’t have UK in the 68-team NCAA tournament field.
Calipari was not on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference Monday because he had a dental procedure. However, associate coach John Robic said UK does not use the NCAA tourney as motivation for the players.
“We’ve never really even talked about it as far as that. We were concentrating on our league games,” Robic said. “It’s never once been mentioned that we have to do this or do that to have a chance to get there. Everything was in front of us. There’s still a lot of things in front of us and that starts with the Georgia game on Thursday.
Robic said the players were “disappointed” with how the team played at Arkansas.
“I think every player in the country is disappointed when they don’t perform well in a losing situation. We were off yesterday and we are going to get back at it today, this afternoon,” Robic said. “We’ve got to right the ship because there is a lot to play for right now, and they know that. They’ll be focused on that.”
Robic said he didn’t know how hard it would be for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to sift through numerous SEC teams — Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi — with similar NCAA resumes.
“There’s a lot of teams out there that have more losses than we do at this point in time. I think finishing is always a big factor. We’re going on the road for a game and then have a home game against Florida on Saturday with a quick turnaround, so there are still opportunities out there for our team,” Robic said.
The UK assistant isn’t sure how the selection committee will evaluate UK without Noel. The Cats are 3-2 since he went down but lost by 30 points at Tennessee and 10 at Arkansas.
“We’ve been without Nerlens for five games now. We took some lumps there without him and then played well. I think there’s still a lot of teams out there that are still being evaluated. You look back at the Arkansas game and there’s only one team that’s gone in there and won this year, and that was Syracuse,” Robic said. “There have been a lot of good teams that have not won on the road. We have won four league games on the road. I think it will come down to the remaining games on our schedule. I know the committee takes a lot of things into factor when they make decisions.”
Kentucky has played much better in Rupp Arena without Noel — consider the overtime win over Missouri — than it has on the road going into Thursday’s game at Georgia where a win would assure UK of a bye into the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
“Obviously our fans have been really behind us for the Missouri game and even for the Mississippi State game. I think every team feels more comfortable playing at home,” Robic said. “That’s why, going through this whole process of the season even with Nerlens, that winning on the road’s hard and when we came away from those wins I think a lot of times you take them for granted.
“I don’t think there’s a huge, huge difference. I think Arkansas played a really good game and attacked us very, very well and fed off their crowd. So I think it’s a natural that most teams play better at home than on the road.”