By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
After Kentucky’s loss of historic proportions at Tennessee on Saturday, coach John Calipari joked that he wanted to burn the game tape because he wasn’t interested in seeing it again. In truth, Calipari doesn’t want to forget that 88-58 blowout, and he doesn’t want his players to, either.
Getting run out of the gym by 30, Calipari hopes, will awaken the Wildcats to the fact that, if they don’t bring the energy, toughness and passion he demands every night, they can get roughed up.
Worse, the defending national champion could miss out on a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Everyone knows this isn’t the same team that won the national title in New Orleans last April. After an ACL injury suffered last week by freshman Nerlens Noel, it’s not even the same team that went into a rowdy Tad Smith Coliseum and dispatched Ole Miss a couple of weeks ago.
Clearly, Noel was not just the nation’s leading shot blocker. He was the heart and soul of this team, the one player Calipari never had to question about toughness or passion, or willingness to perform blue-collar jobs.
Tennessee coaches were afraid before last Saturday’s debacle that the Wildcats might rally around the cause of trying to replace Noel’s immense contributions and be an even tougher opponent without the big man than if he were on the floor. That didn’t happen. But it needs to, and quickly.
“Let’s figure out how we have to play with this new group,” Calipari said on Monday after he’d had a chance to sort out what went wrong two days before. “We had a game to go through to figure it out. … It’s obvious, without Nerlens, we’re a little different. Not 40 points different (Kentucky beat Tennessee 75-65 on Jan. 15), but we’re a little different.”
At 17-8 overall and 8-4 in the conference, without a single win over a team in the RPI Top 50, the Wildcats need to pad their NCAA Tournament resume in a hurry. Luckily, the schedule affords them the chance to do that, with three consecutive home games and a home-court season finale against Florida. Bagging wins over Missouri and Florida in Lexington will help. But Kentucky’s NCAA hopes may well boil down to March 2 (Arkansas) and March 7 (Georgia), when the Cats return to the road for the first time since the Tennessee game.
OTHER NCAA CONTENDERS: Other than Florida, which seems to be loaded for a Final Four run, the SEC has no sure-fire NCAA entrants. Missouri and Ole Miss, at the moment, have done enough to be included, but neither should feel too comfortable just yet.
The Tigers are in the best shape of any SEC team besides the Gators, with their No. 38 RPI and 2-3 record against the RPI Top 50. But their 1-6 road record sticks out like a flashing neon sign. Mizzou gets three more chances to win on the road: At Kentucky on Feb. 23, at South Carolina on Feb. 28, and at Tennessee to close out the regular season on March 9.
Ole Miss (19-6, 8-4), which had lost four of its previous five games before using some Marshall Henderson heroics to turn back Georgia in overtime on Saturday, has waded through the worst of its schedule and figures to get back on track despite a rash of injuries that has thinned out its post rotation. But with an RPI of 52, there’s no margin for error.
The problem for the Rebels is they don’t play another opponent ranked in the RPI Top 50 the rest of the season. There’s little chance of a significant boost in RPI or strength of schedule, so the chance to end all doubt about at at-large bid comes down to the final two games: at home March 5 against Alabama, and March 9 at LSU.
Two other teams still have a chance to get to the Dance. Alabama (17-8, 9-3), with an RPI of 59, a decent road record (4-5) and a respectable non-conference strength of schedule (49), is close, but again, there’s no room for slipups and two huge opportunities to close the deal, at Florida on March 2, and at Ole Miss on March 5.
Arkansas (16-9, 7-5) hasn’t been eliminated yet, either, but with an RPI of 77 and a 1-6 road record, the Hogs’ mission is clear. With games still to play at Florida (Feb. 23), LSU (Feb. 27), and Missouri (March 5), they still have a chance to impress the selection committee.
GOLDEN SHINES AGAIN: Point guard Trae Golden’s fingerprints were all over Tennessee’s disappointing 3-6 start in the SEC, a stretch during which the preseason all-conference player
s lost his starting job and missed two games with a hamstring injury. But to be fair, if some of the blame could be heaped on Golden’s shoulders for that head-scratching first half of league play, so can he claim a good deal of the credit for Tennessee’s current three-game winning streak.
Golden emerged from his January funk two weeks ago and has been impressive since. He scored 16 points and got to the free-throw line 10 times at South Carolina and the Vols won their first road game of the season. He scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out three assists at Vanderbilt and Tennessee won its second straight road game.
Then came the Kentucky game, during which Golden turned in perhaps the most impressive performance by an SEC point guard this season: 24 points, three rebounds, eight assists, zero turnovers and 11 of 12 from the free-throw line in 29 minutes.
“When he plays like that,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said, “everything else just falls in line.”
By that Martin means that when Golden is getting to the rim, and staying in attack mode, he makes things happen. In January, Golden lost that aggressiveness. How did that happen?
“If I knew, I’d have fixed it,” Golden said. “There are a lot of peaks and valleys in the game.”