NASHVILLE, Tenn. – That hissing sound reverberating loud and clear here Friday night was the Kentucky basketball balloon being slowly deflated.
Poking a big hole in the Wildcats’ chances of even having the opportunity to defend their national championship was upstart Vanderbilt, a team that has had to win eight of 11 games down the stretch to just get its record back to .500.
By the time the Commodores had thoroughly handled Kentucky in a revealing 64-48 setback in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the question resonated just as quickly.
Is Kentucky still worthy of inclusion into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large entry when the field is set come Sunday?
Losing at this stage of the postseason is one thing; getting blown out by Vanderbilt, a team the Wildcats had already beaten twice this season, is another.
“I don’t know,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said when asked if his team has done enough to make the NCAA tourney field of 68. “When you play a game like this, it hurts you. But the good news is everyone else is losing, too. So, at the end of the day, it will shake out.
“I trust the (NCAA Selection Committee) to put the right teams in. If we’re in, we’ll play better. And if we’re not, we’re not. I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Second-seeded Kentucky thought it had done enough about it following last Saturday’s home win over SEC regular-season champion Florida. Couple that with another home win Feb. 23 over Missouri, a team generally regarded as NCAA tourney worthy, then the Wildcats had put themselves into position for serious consideration, should they not win the SEC tournament, which they have done 27 of the 52 times it has been staged.
Then again, Kentucky is now 4-5 in its last nine games and has a RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) sitting precariously at No. 50 nationally, according to NCAA.com.
“We had an opportunity,” Calipari said of bolstering the resume with a strong SEC tourney run. “It was in our hands to take it out of everybody’s hands, and we didn’t take care of business.”
The Commodores (16-16), who entered the SEC tourney as the No. 10 seed, sure did. Taking the lead for good midway through the first half, they steadily built a bulge that stood at 37-23 at halftime and by as many as 21 points in the second half before settling into the final 16-point margin of victory.
Four Vanderbilt players finished scoring in double figures, including sophomore guard Dai-Jon Parker with 12, freshman guard Kevin Bright with 11, and junior guard Kyle Fuller and sophomore guard Kedren Johnson with 10 each.
Vanderbilt advances to Saturday’s semifinal match at 2:30 p.m. versus the winner of Friday night’s late quarterfinal game between Missouri and Ole Miss. The first semifinal pits top-seeded Florida against No. 4 seed Alabama at noon. The championship game to decide the league’s automatic entry into the NCAA Tournament is Sunday at noon.
“I think every season, we begin by saying we would like to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game last year in New Orleans. He also picked up his 400th career coaching victory Friday night, a total that also includes a win Thursday over Arkansas in the tourney’s second round.
“I think it’s safe to say this team is doing that right now,” he added. “And I couldn’t be more proud of our players, because we were not a very good team two, three months ago. And that team I watched play tonight looked like a pretty doggone good team to me.”
You won’t get any argument from the Wildcats, who did go on a 10-0 run midway through the second half to pull within 11 points. But that was as close as Kentucky would get, much to the chagrin of the Kentucky faithful that filled most of sold-out Bridgestone Arena.
All that left the Wildcats pleading their case for a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“I feel that we definitely have the talent,” said Kentucky freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who scored a team-high 12 points. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer came off the bench to notch 10 points to become the only other Wildcat to score in double figures.
“We have good wins against quality teams,” Goodwin added. “And, you know, some of those games we were right in there with the teams. We lost the game. We’re a team that is going to compete.”
When it comes to losing to the Commodores, Kentucky can’t use the excuse of being a young team, although they rely mostly on freshmen and sophomore in the core rotation. Conversely, Vanderbilt is the youngest team in the league with no seniors and two juniors.
“I mean, we beat three ranked teams – Florida, Ole Miss and Missouri,” Wildcats freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein said. He has been asked to fill the gap in the middle since the loss of SEC Freshman of the Year Nerlens Noel, who is out for the season and missed the last eight games with a knee injury.
Against Vanderbilt, Cauley-Stein used his 7-foot frame and wide wing span to reap havoc early. But he played most of the game in foul trouble and finished with seven points to go with his nine rebounds.
“It’s really damaging,” Cauley-Stein said of the impact on his team when he is saddled with foul problems. “Coaches preach for me not to get in foul trouble and, you know, I start playing overly aggressive and try to block every shot and up getting myself in foul trouble.”