Granted Kentucky’s lackluster 15-6 record isn’t the equivalent of a hurricane or a tornado or even a nasty nor’easter. But for Wildcat basketball fans less a year from their national championship celebration, third place in the SEC and needing a rally to even earn an invitation to the tournament is just as gray, damp, cold and miserable.
So beating Texas A&M at home 72–68 in overtime after the Aggies handed the Wildcats their biggest home loss in four years was a moral victory, some sweet revenge on a program that, by all rights, shouldn’t be in Kentucky’s league.
Unfortunately for John Calipari and company, the win still wasn’t pretty.
The Aggies aren’t bad. At 13-8 and 3-5 in the SEC, they are a very respectable NIT contender. But this should have been a double-digit win for the Wildcats. Instead the game went to overtime even though the home team never led. Ever.
Kentucky just couldn’t put the Aggies away. Leading by four with only 25 seconds left the Wildcats gave up an easy jump shot to Fabyon Harris, and then turned the ball over on a tie-up. With two seconds remaining, Elston Turner, who led all scorers with 21 points, knocked down an eight-footer to send the game into overtime.
From there Big Blue stiffened, opening up a six-point lead halfway through the extra period. But Turner hit one 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game, and had a second three rattle deep inside the rim before cruelly bounding out with only five seconds remaining.
It was exciting, but not particularly well-played. Coach Cal has to be going nuts over the blown defensive assignments and costly late turnovers. He is a stickler when it comes to hustle and brains, two things this Wildcat squad has shown only in fits and starts.
If there is a bright spot for Kentucky, it is the maturation of 6-foot-10 freshman Nerlens Noel, who has gone from an early underachiever to the most valuable asset in the Kentucky lineup and one of the best freshmen in the country.
Noel ended the night in College Station with 19 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots, but his contribution and influence were much larger. His presence on the floor is beginning to dictate what kind of offense opposing teams can run, and he is forcing them to take shots they didn’t really want.
Averaging 4.7 blocked shots per game, Noel has come on strong in the last month. In his last five conference outings that average has jumped to 6.8 rejections, and his offensive numbers continue to climb as well.
No one is comparing Noel to Anthony Davis, just as anyone who compares this Kentucky team to last year’s national champions will be sorely disappointed.
But the development of Noel and the trajectory of the team as a whole are both positive. It could be too little too late, but those are the silver linings.
For Kentucky fans at this stage, that will have to be enough.