AUBURN, Ala. — There’s no built-in excuse in Lexington this time.
In 2012-13, the lone season in which John Calipari was left out of the NCAA tournament at Kentucky, lottery pick Nerlens Noel went down because of a torn ACL in mid-February. The Wildcats were hardly a lock to go dancing at the time, but Noel’s season-ending injury was the common refrain among Big Blue Nation for why the team lost five of its last nine games and went to the NIT.
This team is at full strength now that Jarred Vanderbilt returned about a month ago, but the Wildcats are free-falling following Wednesday night’s 10-point loss at Auburn — giving them their first four-game losing streak since Calipari was hired in 2009.
And if not for a gift foul with two seconds left by Vanderbilt, the SEC’s last-place team, it would be five consecutive setbacks. And before Vandy, there was that miracle second half in which Kentucky came back from a 17-point deficit to beat West Virginia in Morgantown.
Now it’s time to start wondering if the Wildcats will make another NIT appearance, because it’s fair to question whether this team can beat anyone on its remaining slate.
“I’ve got one thought. Let’s just try and win the next game, win a game,” Calipari said when asked if he was concerned about missing the NCAA tourney. “I feel like if we win a game, we can get going. I’ve had teams in this kind of mode we’re in, but the league was different.”
The good news for Calipari & Co. is that the bubble is incredibly soft. Want proof? Nebraska, Maryland and Mississippi State are still alive and kicking despite unimpressive résumés.
But this is a Kentucky team that barely beat Vandy twice and lost on the road against Texas A&M, Missouri and South Carolina. Kentucky (17-9 overall) is currently 6-7 in an SEC that might be deep but doesn’t boast much in terms of star power.
Next up is a talented, erratic Alabama team Saturday at home. Then comes Arkansas in Fayetteville — which is no easy task — followed by Missouri and Ole Miss at home before closing out the regular season in Gainesville against Florida.
Calipari always says his team is young, but he has a valid point this season. This group is the least experienced team in the country, but I’m not sure that this same group would fare much better a year from now. The Wildcats still wouldn’t boast a point guard who makes life easier for his teammates, wouldn’t feature any legitimate perimeter shooters beyond Kevin Knox, and they still might not look or play like a team.
“I’ve got a bunch of young kids that at times don’t listen, they don’t trust,” Calipari said. “I told them last night [that] I failed them. I haven’t built enough trust that when I talk to them, they’re going to do what this man says. … But they’ve also failed each other. They don’t play for each other.”
It wasn’t as if Auburn played lights out, either. The Tigers made one of their first 16 shots, wound up shooting 37 percent from the field and made only 8 of 27 shots from beyond the arc; this from a team that shoots 46 percent for the season and 39 percent from deep. Auburn’s top player, leading scorer Bryce Brown, was playing at far less than 100 percent and wasn’t even sure he’d be able to go when he woke up Wednesday morning because of a shoulder injury that kept him out of Saturday’s win at Georgia.
But this Kentucky team is missing something. No, it’s missing more than just one thing. There’s a litany of reasons why the Wildcats have struggled. The Dec. 29 shellacking of rival Louisville seems like an eternity ago, and this team no longer brings an intimidation factor that has been associated with those who have “KENTUCKY” on their jerseys.
But those guys — in addition to highly touted recruits Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Sacha Killeya-Jones — just lost to a bunch of lunch-pail guys, players such as Brown, who chose Auburn over FIU and Georgia Southern coming out of high school.
“We got the bottom, most underrated guys,” Brown said. “They have the guys rated high, but we’re playing with that chip on our shoulder.”
There’s no chip with these guys in Lexington. Maybe they’re too nice, too soft or too focused on making a brief pit stop before jumping to the next level. Whatever the case, Calipari hasn’t been able to get this group to play with the fire and intensity that has been his trademark over the years.
Yet Calipari has managed to remain even-keeled through this losing skid. It could be because he prepared for the mediocrity after getting a close look at this group in the preseason, or that he understands better than most that March is all anyone truly remembers, anyway.
“I’m old. I’m not fazed by it, not cracking,” he said. “This isn’t about me. This season is not going to change anything about me.”
Calipari’s right. He has proved plenty in his tenure in Lexington. He has a national title and three other Final Four appearances. For anyone who is disenchanted with Cal, might I remind you of the two-year Billy Clyde Gillispie debacle in 2008 and 2009?
The good news: A few of these guys will bolt after this season, and he’ll replace them with a new batch of shiny, young recruits.
But will this team go down as the most disappointing in the Calipari era? It’s certainly headed that way.