The NCAA Tournament is looming larger and larger but it might not seem that way to the Kentucky Wildcats, because they seem to be going backwards. Sometimes, you can get a dandy perspective on something, the farther away you are from it. And the Cats might just as well be a hundred miles off.
The #1 seed they coveted, like every team does, is gone for good. And the two seed that Joe Lunardi had them sitting on going into Saturday’s action disappeared, snowed under by a pile of missed shots and Florida rebounds. It may never come back.
“I’m coaching 17-, 18-, 19-year old kids,” John Calipari told reporters in Gainesvile. “It’s up to me to figure it out.”
Yessir. And you have a mighty big chore on your hands.
It was 85-69 Gators and could have been a lot uglier. Florida had it up to 22 at one point, blistering Kentucky with 67 percent field goal shooting in the second half. And when the Gators weren’t hitting their shots, they were grabbing Kentucky misses, outrebounding the Cats by a staggering 54-29 margin.
If it’s true, as reported by several people, that the Gators were inspired by Isaiah Briscoe’s remarks in the first few minutes of the game that Florida was “soft,” the UK coach might want to start there. Briscoe seemed to be putting forth some effort, but his was an ugly line score – six points, three assists, four turnovers and no assists.
There was no spark to the Wildcats. There was no fire, in spite of the return of De’Aaron Fox, playing through illness to score 19 points. He turned it over three times, though, and the number that was just as telling was zero – that’s how man assists the point guard had.
Malik Monk, he of the woeful start but incredible finish against Georgia, was scoreless in the first half and finished with just 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
Bam Adebayo, willing target tonight, was a focal point of the Gators’ suffocating defense. He had only nine points, taking 10 shots.
The Wildcats earned most of their points individually, racking up only seven assists on 23 made buckets.
Meanwhile, Florida was having a brilliant evening, with 30 made baskets on 18 assists, while holding the Wildcats to 37.7 percent from the field. That’s domination.
And it’s not as though this was a Kentucky thoroughbred, throwing in a bad race. As dozens of Tweeters pointed out, if not for Monk’s last-second shot in regulation against Georgia, this UK team would be mired in a four-game losing skid.
All the goodness the Wildcats showed in blowout wins over Arkansas and South Carolina has melted away. Any benefits gleaned from extra work during the weeks of “Camp Cal” have disappeared. It’s time to start over.
By Calipari’s own admission, the power forward spot has gone dormant once again, which is where it was earlier in the season. Since that time, Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis slowly came around to where their combined numbers provided Kentucky with a stout challenge for any team from that position.
But Saturday night in Gainesville, they combined for just seven points, although they did produce nine rebounds between them. But their defense was nearly non-existent.
Calipari’s post-game remarks to his team were, “real short,” according to the UK Twitter feed. “I told them I’m not cracking. Sometimes you have to hit bottom.”
Consider this team bottomed out. Everything it accomplished with impressive conference wins over Arkansas and South Carolina has been swept aside.
And think about it. When this was a top 5 team, did hitting rock bottom even seem possible?
Only eight games stand between them and the post-season. Eight opportunities to prove that they aren’t soft, that they can do the dirty work – play defense and rebound – well enough to regain at least some of the stature they had before this tailspin began.
If they don’t, the Final Four will be a mere speck in the distance.