LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s inconsistent play this year has left the Wildcats without a chance to defend their national championship.
There was a no at-large NCAA tournament bid for the young Kentucky squad that could not overcome injuries, sporadic guard play and a lack of leadership.
A 16-point loss in Friday’s must-win game in the Southeastern Conference tournament against Vanderbilt a few miles from the Commodores’ Nashville campus sealed the fate of the Wildcats, who were left out of the 68-team field.
Kentucky (21-11) becomes the 20th national champion to miss the tournament the following season, according to Stats LLC.
That reality set in Sunday for the Wildcats, who hoped they had done enough to get a tournament invitation but knew they could be left watching by leaving it to the selection committee.
Despite their belief that they can beat anybody when playing as a team, Kentucky is left pondering a slew of what-ifs created by their failure to execute consistently.
The SEC quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt symbolized Kentucky’s deficiencies. In a game John Calipari said was a must-win needed to solidify an at-large bid, the coach watched his Wildcats “lay an egg.”
Kentucky managed just 48 points against the Commodores, a squad it swept during the regular season and had scored 74 against just a few weeks ago.
Gone was the momentum from the Wildcats’ signature win over Florida on March 9, as well as their case for returning to the tournament they dominated a year ago. Then again, inconsistency has been a common theme for a young team.
Kentucky has four heralded freshmen on its roster, but no returning starter to lead them like last year’s squad benefited from — rookies and consensus All-Americans Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had veterans such as Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb as mentors.
“Last year’s team was a little unique in that, they had some vocal guys right away that would talk and scream and yell and get the other guys to talk,” Calipari said of the team’s communication earlier this season. “We had to get them to where they talked and they took great pride in who they were and what they were about as a team. We’re trying to get us to that point but it’s taking time.”
Star freshman center Nerlens Noel, leading a recruiting class including 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, often set the tone for Kentucky with energy and standout shot-blocking skills. He was leading the nation with 106 rejections before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12 that shifted the Wildcats’ fortunes.
After he was sidelined, the Wildcats were a .500 team.
Kentucky struggled even with the 6-foot-10 Noel in the lineup. The Wildcats started this year ranked No. 3 behind Indiana and Louisville, but fell out of the Top 25 after going 4-3 to start the season.
They climbed back into the rankings at No. 25 on Feb. 11 before Noel tore his ACL in a loss at Florida the next night. Kentucky went 4-4 without him, including a 30-point drubbing at Tennessee and three other double-digit losses away from Rupp Arena.
Ultimately, those losses outweighed the Wildcats’ quality wins over Florida and Missouri and finishing second behind the Gators during the regular season to clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament.
But uneven guard play, the frontcourt’s failure to support Cauley-Stein after he took over for Noel and a season-long battle trying to build chemistry doomed Kentucky’s hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament.
The last two games were telling for the Wildcats’ season-long issues in the backcourt. After combining for 29 points in the win over Florida, Harrow and Goodwin contributed just 16 points on 7 of 25 shooting against Vanderbilt.
Cauley-Stein had nine rebounds against the Commodores but just seven points and four fouls, while Poythress tallied six points and four rebounds. Against the Gators, they teamed up for 15 points and 20 rebounds.
“I mean, it’s re-occurring,” Cauley-Stein said of the team’s up-and-down performances after the Vanderbilt loss.
“Happens every two games. It’s like that.”
The Wildcats won’t get the opportunity to repeat that pattern in the NCAA tournament.