LEXINGTON, Ky. — From the time the 40-0 talk melted away during a disappointing Kentucky Wildcats December, UK backers consoled themselves with thoughts of one number — 2011.
Kentucky fans invested hope that the current Cats, like the 2011 Wildcats of Brandon Knight, Josh Harrellson and Co., could jell late and make a Final Four run.
Given the uncertainties of March Madness, that could still happen. But after a disappointing Thursday night in Rupp Arena, let’s be blunt: There’s no tangible sign at this point that John Calipari’s 2014 Cats have a magical march through March in them.
For the second straight game against a middling but desperate SEC foe, Kentucky found itself in overtime at home, this time against Arkansas. Unlike Saturday when the Wildcats were fortunate to escape with a 77-76 victory over LSU, there was no happy ending for the Wildcats on Thursday night. Instead, the visiting Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7 SEC) turbo-charged their NCAA Tournament hopes with a 71-67 OT win that left a Rupp crowd of 23,908 stunned and grumbling.
“A big step back,” Calipari said afterward.
For all the happy talk coming from the Kentucky camp after the LSU victory, the most distressing thing about Thursday was not just that the Wildcats lost. It was that they lost while displaying the same weaknesses the Cats have exhibited, more or less, since December.
UK started flat, fell behind 7-2, briefly went ahead 11-7, then watched Arkansas go on a 22-6 run to take control of the game.
“I thought they’d come out and play,” Calipari said of his players. “They didn’t. The other team played harder.”
Mike Anderson’s Hogs led 37-30 at halftime — and it took an old-fashioned Julius Randle three-point play with 1.1 seconds left in half one to make it that close.
One area of encouragement in a disappointing night was that Kentucky’s much-maligned man-to-man defense took hold and stifled Arkansas for much of half number two. From 12:01 to 4:17 of half two, UK held Arkansas to one field goal. The Cats (21-7, 11-4 SEC) rallied in a rocking Rupp, and led 57-52 after Aaron Harrison drained a three-point shot with 4:41 left.
Yet with victory in grasp, familiar Kentucky bugaboos again appeared.
The Cats were horrid from the foul line. From 8:22 left in regulation through 3:18 of the overtime period, UK went 3-of-9 on foul shots. With Arkansas down 57-54 and on the verge of submission late in regulation, James Young missed two foul shots with 3:05 left.
After Young’s second miss, one could palpably feel the Hogs reinvigorate with hope.
UK was seeking to avenge an 87-85 overtime defeat to Arkansas in Fayetteville Jan. 14, a game decided on Michael Qualls’ slam-dunk follow shot with 0.2 seconds left. Then, UK got in trouble by turning the ball over 17 times and missing 14 free throws.
Thursday night in Rupp, it was same song, different verse — Kentucky had 18 turnovers and went 12-of-22 from the line.
Kentucky’s decision-making when in offensive transition ranged from questionable to terrible. I lost count of how many errant lob passes the Cats threw. Said Calipari: “Our guard play was horrendous today.”
Other than its mid-second half defense, about the only other bright spot for Kentucky was the play of Willie Cauley-Stein. The 7-foot Kansan played with abundant energy and had 16 points and 13 rebounds. It was only Cauley-Stein’s second double-figure scoring game in his last 13.
If Kentucky is going to make any noise at all in the NCAA Tournament, it needs a productive Cauley-Stein on the court for his defensive presence.
Of course, by this point, those who believe Kentucky will make a charge through March could likely be contained in the guest bedroom of your house.
The good news is that as long as a team makes the NCAA tourney, there is always a chance the proverbial light goes on.
It’s just that, based on what we’ve seen so far, do you have any realistic belief that is going to happen with the 2014 Kentucky Wildcats?
“All I can tell you is I’m disappointed,” Calipari said of the Arkansas loss. “I didn’t expect this.”
Suffice to say, after a disappointing night in Rupp Arena, the spirit of 2011 seemed far away.