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Coach Cal, Cats left with 'something to prove' following end to disappointing season

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UK's 2012-13 season ended with a 59-57 loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. (Matt Adams, UK Athletics) UK's 2012-13 season ended with a 59-57 loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. (Matt Adams, UK Athletics)
Right from the very beginning, it felt familiar.

Time after time during a season that went according to no one's plan, opponents took the fight right to the Wildcats, using physical play to unnerve an undisputedly talented Kentucky team. After it worked so many times during the regular season, why wouldn't Robert Morris try it in the first round of the NIT with a raucous home crowd?

"Last year, at the beginning of the year, every team played us this way," head coach John Calipari said. "And our guys said, 'It ain't happening.' And they fought back and that was negated. By the end of the year, you could not play us physical and tough and win a ballgame against us. We never accepted that that was an issue (this season)."

It was an issue once again on Tuesday night as the Cats (21-12) saw their season end in a 59-57 loss.

The particulars of the game need little rehashing. The Colonials (24-10) jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but UK battled back behind the inspired play of Jarrod Polson (10 points) and the determination of Archie Goodwin (18 points, seven rebounds). Kentucky would have completed a comeback win had Kyle Wiltjer's buzzer-beating 3-point attempt fallen, but that only would have delayed the inevitable. No matter how long they stayed alive, the Cats' run in the NIT was but a chance to improve heading into next season.

Outsiders will harp on the irresistible "national championship to Moon Township(, Pa.)"storyline to describe UK's change in postseason fortunes in less than a calendar year, but nothing about this season or this game alters Coach Cal's vision for the program.

"All I know is there were things that we did this year we will not do, we'll correct and we'll be fine," Calipari said. "This program's fine. The recruiting is in good shape. We're right where we need to be."

And so begins an intriguing offseason.

Calipari already has locked up his fifth straight top recruiting class. Five players have signed for 2013 and more are expected to come on board this spring. The process of determining who among players from the 2012-13 roster will join them will play itself out in the coming weeks.

"I told them we'll have individual meetings," Calipari said. "I'm not ready to do that yet. We'll have individual meetings and I told them the one this is expect me to be honest with them."

Coach Cal may not quite be ready to discuss stay-or-go decisions, but his players faced inevitable questions about the NBA in the immediate aftermath of the loss. Goodwin and Alex Poythress didn't hesitate to say they don't feel they ready for the next level and they expect to return. Willie Cauley-Stein sang a similar tune, but added that he needs first to evaluate his stock and talk to his family before making any proclamations.

Regardless of their final decisions, Poythress, Goodwin and Cauley-Stein showed maturity in fielding questions about their future. For top recruits - especially those choosing to play at UK - playing one season and going pro has come to be viewed as the norm, rather than the remarkable exception that it truly is. These Cats seem humble and self-aware enough to realize that there's no shame in developing at your own pace.

"You don't come to college expecting to be here one year," Poythress said. "You come to college, you just try to do the best you can. If you have the opportunity, then you can leave."

It's best for fans to anticipate all of UK's players with NBA pedigrees will still at least ponder the possibilities once the sting of a season-ending defeat wears off, but even Calipari is talking like a coach who expects some of his youngsters back for another season.

"What we're gonna have is unbelievable competition," Calipari said. "We may have three teams, so 15 guys that can play. And let's go. It's what we need, kind of like my first year when we had all those players. We're gonna be a little young, but with guys coming back we're still going to have some veteran guys."

Even with all the talk of next year, there was still plenty of reflection on what went wrong with the season that just ended. It was a group that came in with unfair expectations after last year's national championship, starting the season ranked No. 3 despite returning just one major contributor from a year ago.

But for all the praise that poured in from media and fans even before the first practice, it was the fact that the Cats at least partially bought into their own hype that did the real damage. After watching their predecessors steamroll their way to a title, the Cats couldn't help but think they would repeat the performance.

"Last year's team was just so good," said an introspective Poythress. "They made it look so easy and in reality it's not. There's so much hard work you gotta put in."

The 2012 Cats were driven from day one, but they didn't take their hard work to a national-championship level until after they had to navigate their way through a court-rushing mob following a loss at Indiana. It was that game that caused UK to zero in on its goals and morph into a tournament juggernaut.

The 2013 Cats found themselves in a similar situation after losing at Robert Morris. Hundreds of fans streamed onto the floor celebrating the biggest win in school history as UK's players stared with hands on heads.

The timing and circumstances, of course, were very different.

One was a December regular-season loss; the other was a season-ender. This year's Wildcats couldn't become a great team in the span of one season like in 2012, but they still might have a chance to do it on their own schedule.

"It should be driving us for a long time," Poythress said. "It's just going to stay in my mind, stay in the back of my head. It's going to be hard to get out, especially when you end your season like this."

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