March 20, 2013

Direct Kick: UK has to settle with NIT, not NCAA

By Denis House
Sports Editor

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — For the second time in history, the Kentucky Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament a year after winning it all, which leaves many fans scratching their heads wondering what went wrong with this season.

Many point to Nerlens Noel being lost for the season when he tore his ACL against Florida back on February 12. Including that game, the Wildcats were 4-5 without Noel. Prior to the injury, they were 17-6.

So yes, losing Noel hurt, especially on the defensive end. And the Cats were riding a 5-game winning streak heading into the Florida game, so it looked like the team was finally starting to come together. But losing one player, especially in college, shouldn’t make that much of a difference. And considering this was supposed to be the No. 1 recruiting class from last year, there should have been someone to step up.

But there wasn’t. And that’s another problem with recruiting one and done players. No experienced players to step in when something like this happens. Take last year for example. Kentucky probably wouldn’t have won the title had it not been for experienced players like Darius Miller and Terrance Jones. But this year, UK didn’t have anyone like that.

Even from the start of the season, this Kentucky team didn’t have the same swagger as years past. Losses to Notre Dame, Baylor and Texas A & M left a bad taste in fans’ mouths. Losing to rivals Duke, Louisville and Tennessee didn’t sit too well with the Big Blue Nation. Neither did losses at Arkansas and Georgia.

“This team plays with no heart,” many UK fans said. “They don’t know what it means to play at Kentucky,” others shouted. “They are thinking too much about the NBA draft” still others cried.

And all three were right.

When this team was faced with adversity, for the most part, they backed down instead of standing up. Take the game after Noel was lost for the season against the Volunteers in Knoxville. Kentucky didn’t even show up, losing by 30, 88-58. That loss seemed to motivate them over their next three games, beating Vanderbilt, Missouri and Mississippi State, all at Rupp Arena.

Then they went on the road to two very average teams, but lost both games, falling at Arkansas, 73-60, and at Georgia (a sub .500 team), 72-62. Back home for the season finale, the Cats upset No. 11 Florida, 61-57. Still, Kentucky knew it was on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament, needing a good showing in the SEC tourney to secure a spot in the tourney.

So with their whole season riding on the game with Vanderbilt, a team they had beaten twice (by a total of six points), the Wildcats again failed to show up, falling by 20, 68-48. That was all the selection committee needed to see, as Kentucky was left out in the cold on Selection Sunday, instead having to settle with a No. 1 seed in the NIT and a first round game at Roger Morris last night. Since the NCAA tourney was being held at Rupp Arena this week, and UK not having enough staff to host the game at Memorial Coliseum, the game was moved to Roger Morris, to a gym that seats a little over 3,000.

Only three teams from the SEC made this year’s NCAA tournament: Florida, Ole Miss and Missouri. Missouri kind of surprised me, as both Kentucky and Alabama finished ahead of the Tigers in the SEC standings. But Mizzou made it to the semifinals of the SEC tourney, falling to eventual champion Ole Miss by two points. That is what put them ahead of UK and ‘Bama.

Kentucky fans were upset when the Wildcats didn’t make this year’s field, but if you look with unbiased eyes, you can see that they really didn’t deserve to be included. And if they don’t win the NIT, then you know the selection committee made the right call.

There were several teams left on the outside looking in and having to settle for the NIT. Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland are three that spring to mind. The Terps beat Duke, a Top 5 team all season, twice, and also beat a ranked N.C. State team before falling in the ACC tourney by three to North Carolina, yet they weren’t picked for the Big Dance. Interestingly, this will be the third time in the last six years that the defending champ failed to make the following year’s tourney (Florida 2008 and North Carolina 2010). This makes the eighth time in history that the defending champ not will not make the tourney.

Since midseason Wildcat fans have been talking about wait until next year, when another No. 1 recruiting class comes to Lexington. But who’s to say that they won’t turn out like this year’s bunch? And if the majority of players from this year’s team returns, how will the incoming freshmen feel about that, since they are expecting to play right away?

Only time will tell.