John Calipari will return to his hometown of Moon Township, Pa., for UK's first round NIT game vs. Robert Morris. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no clouding the fact that the NIT is not where Kentucky wanted to be on Selection Sunday. The Wildcats, of course, wanted to be defending their national championship in the NCAA Tournament this March.
But after the Cats learned that won't be happened, they had to move on. For John Calipari, that means looking to the future.
"I'm really disappointed we didn't make the NCAA Tournament but we are going to use this time to make us better," Calipari said in a tweet.
The good news is that Coach Cal and the Cats will be able to improve by playing actual games.
Just hours after UK found out it would not play in the Big Dance, the Cats were tabbed as the top overall seed in the NIT. There, they will face Robert Morris at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday on ESPN. UK last played in the NIT in 2009 - the season before Coach Cal arrived in Lexington - and the Cats won two games and advanced to the quarterfinals before losing at Notre Dame.
That season, UK played its first-round game in Memorial Coliseum and was positioned to host once again in 2013 as a No. 1 seed. However, due to the fact NCAA Tournament second- and third-round games are being played in Rupp Arena this week, UK was unable to do so.
"We did not place a bid to host the first round of the NIT due to limited staff availability to properly host a game at Memorial Coliseum," Executive Associate Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy said in a statement. "Because the University of Kentucky is hosting the NCAA second- and third-round games at Rupp Arena on March 21 and 23, the facility was not available for a first-round NIT game."
Should UK advance past Robert Morris, the Cats would host either Providence or Charlotte in the second round in Rupp as well as a potential quarterfinal.
Though the Cats won't be playing at home, the NIT first round will be a homecoming for Coach Cal. Calipari's home town is Moon Township, Pa., which happens to be the same Pittsburgh suburb where Robert Morris is located.
In fact, the Charles L. Sewall Center, the 3,056-seat arena where Robert Morris plays its home games, is barely a mile drive down University Boulevard from Moon Area High School, Coach Cal's alma mater. Adding another piece of interesting backstory, Calipari's grandmother worked in the Robert Morris cafeteria.
As proud as locals may be of their native son, Robert Morris won't be looking to give him too friendly a welcome. The Colonials (23-10) received an NIT bid after winning the Northeastern Conference regular-season title but falling short of the NEC's automatic bid by losing to Mount St. Mary's in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
"I feel like Rocky from Rocky I, who just got his shot at the champion to fight against the defending national champion in our home city," said third-year head coach Andrew Toole in joining ESPNU's NIT Selection Show.
Robert Morris, however, has more prizefighting experience than Rocky Balboa did when he got his shot at heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.
The Colonials have won 15 of 18 games and boast a victory over co-Mid-Atlantic Conference champion Ohio. They also lost by just two on the road against Xavier and held a second-half lead at Arkansas before falling, 79-74.
"We knew we were going to play a team like Kentucky or one of the teams that was on the bubble and hopefully we'll prepare ourselves mentally to go and play a great game against a great team," Toole said.
UK has faced Robert Morris just once in school history, winning 92-67 on Dec. 30, 1993 in Rupp.
Whoever the Cats' opponent turned out to be, Coach Cal's priorities for the NIT were going to remain the same. He wants to win games even though the tournament in which he's coaching doesn't have all the right letters, but the simple fact that he gets to keep coaching his team is what matters.
"Even now, I'm going to coach these guys, try to make them better (and) give everything I can to make sure we control our destiny in the future," Calipari said.
Calipari, like the Big Blue Nation, doesn't want to ever be on the NCAA Tournament bubble again. The path to making that happen starts now.
After a long two days of waiting, the Kentucky Wildcats received the news they were hoping to avoid on Sunday evening.
For just the second time in 22 seasons, UK was left out of the NCAA Tournament field when brackets were announced on the Selection Show. UK last missed the tournament in 2009, the year before John Calipari's arrival as head coach.
The tension lasted until the final moment, as the second play-in game featuring at-large teams was saved until the final bracket. But when Boise State and La Salle appeared as No. 13 seeds in the West Region, it was clear the Cats would not be included.
Positioned to likely clinch a bid with a victory over Vanderbilt on Friday night, the Cats (21-11) instead left their fate in the hands of the selection committee. They were then disappointed to learn they would not be a part of the Big Dance in spite of a resume that matched up well with fellow bubble teams.
Along with Boise State and La Salle, the final at-large teams to make the field were Middle Tennessee State and St. Mary's. Selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski, in joining the Selection Show broadcast, was asked about the inclusion of Middle Tennessee State, a team that had just one victory against teams ranked in the RPI's top 100. Bobinski revealed that the "deciding factor in a lot of those cases" was performance away from home.
"The difference between Middle Tennessee and some of the other (bubble teams) really in our mind was the ability to win on the road," Bobinski said.
UK was 4-7 in true road games this season, but winless in three tries after losing Nerlens Noel to injury. MTSU was 9-3, Boise State 5-9, La Salle 8-6 and St. Mary's 9-2.
The Cats will now turn their attention to the NIT. The NIT Selection Show will air at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
UPDATE: Coach Cal tweeted his thoughts on UK missing the tournament on Sunday night. Here's what he had to say.
"I'm really disappointed we didn't make the NCAA Tournament but we are going to use this time to make us better. We had our chances, but I'm not going to stop. It's a great lesson for the future of our program (and) a humbling experience for me as a coach. To the (Big Blue Nation), you did your part all season long. You showed up in droves and helped us pull through key games. We didn't do our part. Even now, I'm going to coach these guys, try to make them better (and) give everything I can to make sure we control our destiny in the future."
At this do-or-die time of the year, it seems like every game takes on a greater importance the closer and closer we get to Selection Sunday.
That's why Kentucky's 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament seems to have hurt the Wildcats so much. At such at a critical time of the year, it wasn't the greatest timing to lose their second game to a team outside the RPI top 100.
"It was in our hands to take it out of everybody's hands and we didn't take care of business," John Calipari said Friday.
As true as that statement is - UK was essentially a lock for the NCAA Tournament with a win over Vanderbilt - perhaps everyone overreacted just a bit in the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Commodores.
While the loss certainly hurt Kentucky's national perception, did it really do all that much to damage its overall body of work? If the NCAA selection committee really does count every game of the season the same - and NCAA chairman Mike Bobinski said exactly that Saturday when he said games at this time of the year weigh equally with every other game during the season - UK appears to have a résumé that stacks up pretty favorably to rest of the so-called bubble teams.
Don't believe that? I decided to compile the résumés of Joe Lunardi's "last four in" and "first four out" categories in his latest NCAA Tournament projections just to see how Kentucky measured up to those other teams. UK's RPI, strength of schedule and record vs. the RPI top 50 are all pretty competitive with the bubble teams vying for the final few at-large berths.
The one thing Kentucky has gotten criticized for this year is its lack of "good" wins, but if you evaluate UK's quality wins (a victory against a top-50 RPI opponent) with the other eight schools below, UK has just as many quality wins as its competition and actually fewer costly losses (losses to teams rated outside the RPI's top 100) than most of the pack.
Obviously the Cats are being judged without Nerlens Noel, but in the process of going 4-4 without their top big man, they picked up two of their biggest victories of the season (Florida and Missouri).
"When we play - where everybody plays as a team everybody does what they're supposed to do - we can beat anybody," freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We beat Florida. We beat Missouri. We beat Ole Miss. Missouri's in it; they're a lock. We beat them. Florida's a lock. We beat them. And Ole Miss is on the bubble, so we showed we can beat anybody"
Comparing résumés isn't where John Calipari's team would have liked to have been when it started this season, but since when do preseason expectations dictate who the best 68 teams in the country are? When it comes down to it - loss to Vanderbilt and all - UK's profile still stacks up (not to mention a 3-1 record vs. the eight teams below), and the Wildcats are still very much a factor heading into Selection Sunday.
NCAA Tournament "bubble" profiles (note: Ole Miss and Southern Miss' RPI and strength of schedule do not factor in their games on Saturday since those numbers have not been updated; all information was compiled from ESPN's RPI standings as of 6 p.m. on Saturday; while the RPI does not determine who gets in the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA selection committee uses the rankings as a measuring stick when selecting the field; Ole Miss is the only bubble team still playing and can win an automatic berth with a victory over Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game on Sunday.)
Kentucky Wildcats Record: 21-11 RPI: 56 Record vs. RPI top 50: 3-4 Record vs. RPI top 100: 7-9 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 12-0 Strength of schedule: 73 Quality wins: Florida, Missouri, at Ole Miss Costly losses: at Georgia, Vanderbilt Record away from home: 5-9 KenPom.com ranking: 44 Sagarin rating: 36 Lunardi's "Last Four In"
Boise State Broncos Record: 21-10 (19-10 vs. Division I) RPI: 44 Record vs. RPI top 50: 4-7 Record vs. RPI top 100: 8-8 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 7-2 Strength of schedule: 44 Quality wins: at Creighton, UNLV, Colorado State, San Diego State Costly losses: at Utah, at Nevada Record away from home: 7-9 KenPom.com ranking: 49 Sagarin rating: 59
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders Record: 28-5 RPI: 29 Record vs. RPI top 50: 1-3 Record vs. RPI top 100: 2-3 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 21-1 Strength of schedule: 134 Quality wins: Ole Miss Costly losses: Florida International Record away from home: 13-5 KenPom.com ranking: 31 Sagarin rating: 53 Ole Miss Rebels Record: 25-8 RPI: 50 Record vs. RPI top 50: 2-3 Record vs. RPI top 100: 8-6 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 13-2 Strength of schedule: 143 Quality wins: Missouri, Missouri (neutral) Costly losses: at South Carolina, at Mississippi State Record away from home: 9-7 KenPom.com ranking: 43 Sagarin rating: 40
La Salle Explorers Record: 21-9 RPI: 40 Record vs. RPI top 50: 2-4 Record vs. RPI top 100: 5-8 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 9-1 Strength of schedule: 79 Quality wins: Butler, at VCU Costly losses: Central Connecticut State Record away from home: 10-7 KenPom.com ranking: 56 Sagarin rating: 58 Lunardi's "First Four Out"
Virginia Cavaliers Record: 21-11 RPI: 74 Record vs. RPI top 50: 4-3 Record vs. RPI top 100: 8-4 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 11-4 Strength of schedule: 127 Quality wins: at Wisconsin, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke Costly losses: Delaware, at Georgia Tech, at Boston College, at George Mason, Old Dominion, at Wake Forest, at Clemson Record away from home: 3-10 KenPom.com ranking: 28 Sagarin rating: 38
Maryland Terrapins Record: 22-11 RPI: 62 Record vs. RPI top 50: 3-4 Record vs. RPI top 100: 4-9 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 17-0 Strength of schedule: 111 Quality wins: North Carolina State, Duke, Duke (neutral) Costly losses: at Boston College, at Georgia Tech Record away from home: 6-8 KenPom.com ranking: 55 Sagarin rating: 48
Tennessee Volunteers Record: 20-12 RPI: 57 Record vs. RPI top 50: 3-5 Record vs. RPI top 100: 9-10 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 8-0 Strength of schedule: 47 Quality wins: Wichita State, Florida, Missouri Costly losses: Georgia, at Georgia Record away from home: 7-9 KenPom.com ranking: 67 Sagarin rating: 51
Southern Miss Golden Eagles Record: 25-9 (23-8 vs. Division I) RPI: 32 Record vs. RPI top 50: 0-5 Record vs. RPI top 100: 4-8 Record vs. RPI sub 150: 11-1 Strength of schedule: 86 Quality wins: None Costly losses: at Marshall Record away from home: 13-8 KenPom.com ranking: 53 Sagarin rating: 56
Kentucky fell to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday night, 64-48. (Josh McCoy, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - All the Kentucky Wildcats can do now is sit and wait.
After weeks of speculation, bubble talk and mock brackets, the Cats took their fate out of their own hands and put their faith in the NCAA Tournament selection committee with a stunning 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Now, all they can do is hope they are one of the final teams to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament when the field is announced on Selection Sunday.
"I just hope we're the best of the bad right now," John Calipari said. "That's what I'm hoping."
A number of bubble teams UK was competing against for one of the final NCAA Tournament spots fell on Thursday and Friday, but will Kentucky's loss to a .500 team and one ranked outside the RPI top 100 be the final nail in the coffin of a team that has taken its fair share of blows this season?
"When you play a game like this, it hurts you," Coach Cal admitted. "The good news is everyone else is losing, too. At the end of the day it will shake out and I trust the committee to put the right teams in. ... We had an opportunity. It was in our hands to take it out of everybody's hands and we didn't take care of business."
UK (21-11), poised to become a lock for the Big Dance with a win over Vanderbilt on Friday, was dominated from start to finish in the third meeting with the Commodores.
Vandy shot 50.0 percent from the field, hit six of its first nine 3-point attempts and made all but one of its free throws. Meanwhile, UK shot just 34.6 percent from the field, had just two players score in double figures and failed to break the 50-point barrier for the first time in the Coach Cal era.
"We laid an egg and they played well," Calipari said.
In the postgame locker room, tears streamed down Ryan Harrow's face as he talked with reporters. Honorably, he answered every question the media had for him following his 2-for-15, four-turnover performance, but there was no disguising his utter disappointment with his game on Friday.
"It's my fault," Harrow said. "I apologize."
Once the questions ended, Harrow turned his chair and draped a towel over his head. He said he would take responsibility if the Cats don't make the NCAA Tournament, but quite frankly few of his teammates performed to their ability in one of the important games of the year.
"We all contribute to it," freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "I get in foul trouble early and ... when that happens it seems like the whole energy comes down. I take fault for the energy level and I let the dude (Josh Henderson) bully me a little bit. But all in all, everybody did it. They all bullied everybody. It's definitely a team loss."
As Calipari warned Thursday night, his team was in a dogfight from the outset, but the Cats were at least hanging around early as Vanderbilt shot well from the perimeter for the second game in the row.
UK appeared to be fighting off the early Vanderbilt momentum when Harrow converted his first field-goal attempt with 6:22 to go in the first half, but that's when the wheels came off for the Cats.
After Kevin Bright knocked down one of five first-half 3-pointers for Vanderbilt and Harrow turned it over, Cauley-Stein was baited into a foul by Shelby Moats and went to the bench with two fouls. As Cauley-Stein sat on the sidelines, Kentucky's energy evaporated. The Commodores didn't waste any time taking advantage.
In the 4:53 that the 7-footer sat on the bench to end the first half, Vanderbilt outscored UK 16-7 to take a commanding 37-23 halftime lead.
Shots simply weren't falling, and as Vandy's lead grew, it appeared the pressure of the season slipping away snowballed.
"We didn't have anything go down for us throughout the whole game," said freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who led UK with 12 points. "It just keeps going down and down. And when that happens, sometimes it can bring the whole morale of the team down. It might have been something that happened here, but at the same time, we have to find ways to fight through when somebody's not having their best game and just be able to try to find different ways to pull out a win."
But as has been the case all season, when adversity hit, UK couldn't battle back. The lead only got bigger as the second half started, ballooning to as many as 21 points with 16:21 to play.
The Cats clawed back to within 11 on Goodwin's ferocious two-hand dunk with 12:46 to play, but they couldn't sustain the momentum of the 8-0 run.
"We had our chances," Calipari said. "It got to 11 and then we broke down two or three straight times. We miss a layup, miss a wide-open shot. All we needed to do is try to get it to six, seven, eight points and see what would happen. We never (could) and ... we were stabbing ourselves in the eye in most cases."
Kentucky went to a zone during the 8-0 run, but the Cats never went back to it.
Ultimately, UK posted one of its worst defensive efforts of the season. Playing against an offense that entered the day ranked 311st in the country in points per game, the Cats gave up 1.23 points per possession Friday, the third-worst mark of the season.
"That's been our problem the whole year is when we're not playing good on offense we kind of get down on ourselves and then our defense suffers for it," Cauley-Stein said.
Calipari said a lot of the credit goes to Vanderbilt and its late-season improvement. The 'Dores have won six of their last seven games after their quarterfinal victory.
"We begin every season by saying we want to play our best basketball at the end of the year," Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings said. "I think it's safe to say our team is doing that right now."
Kentucky, on the other hand, did not save its best for last. It could ultimately cost the team a spot in the Big Dance for the first time in the Coach Cal era.
"When we play - where everybody plays as a team everybody does what they're supposed to do - we can beat anybody," Cauley-Stein said. "We beat Florida. We beat Missouri. We beat Ole Miss. Missouri's in it; they're a lock. We beat them. Florida's a lock. We beat them. And Ole Miss is on the bubble, so we showed we can beat anybody."
The problem is the Cats have been reduced to lobbying for themselves and comparing their résumé with other teams. It isn't the position they wanted to put themselves in entering the most critical weekend of the season.
"We had our opportunities to keep it in our hands, but we didn't seize the moment and take advantage of it," Julius Mays said. "All we can do is sit and wait."
Believe it or not, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings thinks his team last year matched up better with Kentucky's national champions than this Commodore squad does.
"Maybe not as good as last year," Stallings said of the matchup moments after his team eliminated Arkansas last night. "I thought we matched up a little better last year (because of the size). What matters now is how you play, not so much who you play. If we're going to win, we're going to have to play well."
Stallings said Kentucky presented more problems for Vandy's defense in the second meeting - without Nerlens Noel.
"We had a harder time guarding them the second time. I don't know if it was because of venues but it just felt like to me that they did more to us (with their offense) and we didn't have any answers," he observed. "We guarded them way better in the first game. We couldn't guard them in the second game." Coach Cal knows what Mays means
"I don't know where this team would be without him."
That's how Coach Cal sums up Julius Mays' one season at Kentucky.
"He's ended up taking on a leadership role and done a great job with it. When he scores, we're really good," Cal said, "but when he doesn't score, we're still okay because he'll rebound, he'll assist and he's giving a calming presence. His thing is 'I wish I was coached this way for four years.' " Goodwin settling in as scorer
Archie Goodwin takes a streak of six consecutive double-figure scoring games into Friday's game against Vandy in the SEC Tourney. It's a streak that started with the Cats' 74-70 win over the 'Dores in Lexington last month.
"He's slowing down a little bit and he's making layups. We had to show him that he's missed 80 layups (going into the Florida game) and there was another 15 when he ran over somebody," Calipari explained. "Now, he's concentrating and he's making layups. Reality hits you when you have a tape of you (missing) 80 layups."
Recalling Antoine Walker's SEC Tournament emergence
Last year, eventual national player of the year Anthony Davis became the first UK freshman since Sam Bowie in 1980 to record a double-double in an SEC Tournament game.
And he made it three-for-three before he finished his one league tournament run.
But Davis had already emerged as a superstar before he got to the postseason. Perhaps one of this year's rookies will be the next Antoine Walker.
Back in 1995, Walker came into the SEC Tournament without having scored more than 15 points in any single game (and that happened once, in the season opener against UT-Martin in November of '94). And during one four-game stretch in mid-February, Walker had two scoreless outings and four total points.
Well after a nine-point performance against Auburn in his first SEC Tournament game, Walker hung 21 on Florida and then produced 23 versus Arkansas as UK won the title and Walker took home the MVP trophy.
Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 13.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in two regular-season wins over Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's nearing the part of the season when every game could be Kentucky's last. This is when coaches typically ease off the throttle to make sure their teams are fresh for quick turnarounds, but not John Calipari.
Coach Cal knows the last thing the Wildcats need is for him to take his foot off the gas. For that reason, he's pushing them as hard as he ever has.
"We've had three really good days of practice and I was really - I was probably as hard the last three days as I was at any point this season," Calipari said on Thursday night.
You see, Coach Cal is worried about Friday when UK will open postseason play against Vanderbilt (15-16) in Bridgestone Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). With a double bye to the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals, he knew the Cats would be facing a team riding the momentum of a victory the night before. He believes that makes this the most difficult game UK will play all weekend.
"After that it starts going downhill a little bit," Calipari said. "It's a little easier. This first one will be a bear, and so I've tried to be tough and rough, and they've responded, so we'll see."
Not until just before 9 p.m. local time did the Cats find out who they had been preparing for.
Vanderbilt advanced with a 75-72 victory over Arkansas on Thursday night. The Commodores built a lead as large as 16 points with less than 11 minutes left before surviving a furious Razorback rally.
It will be the third matchup between the Cats and Commodores on the season. In fact, it will be the second year in a row the Cats and Commodores have met for the third time in the SEC Tournament. Last year, Vandy took down UK in the SEC Tournament finals, 71-64, the Cats' lone postseason blemish en route to a national championship. You can throw that game out the window though because these two teams hardly resemble last year's versions due to graduation and losses to the NBA Draft.
In 2013, UK has twice taken down Vandy in close games: 74-70 in Lexington on Feb. 20 and 60-58 in Nashville on Jan. 10. Each time Kentucky ceded double-digit leads only to survive in the final minutes.
"They're pretty familiar with us; we're pretty familiar with them," Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings said. "We've had two competitive games, just like last year, and now you sort of anticipate a slugfest for the third one. They're a really good team and hopefully we can play well."
The Commodores, however, are a different group than the last time they faced UK. Vandy has won five of its last six since the second game against the Cats. The only loss came on the road at conference champion Florida.
"We're playing our best basketball of the season," Stallings said.
During that stretch, the Commodores have done what they have all season: rely on the 3-point shot. Coming into the win over Arkansas, Vandy had attempted 43.6 percent of its field goals from beyond the arc, the ninth-highest highest rate of any team in the country. Against the Razorbacks, the 'Dores took exactly half - 28 of 56 - of their shots from deep, hitting 12.
In five wins since losing at UK, Vandy has averaged 9.6 made 3s. In their lone loss, the Commodores shot just 4 of 24.
"We're going to guard them but it doesn't matter, they're going to shoot them," Calipari said. "Whether you really guard them, then they'll step back deeper. (Rod) Odom's going to step back; he's going to shoot them. (Kedren) Johnson will shoot them."
That was certainly the case against Arkansas. Johnson, Vandy's leading scorer, made just 1 of 3, but Odom drilled five of his six field goals on the night from 3-point range in nine attempts, scoring a game-high 20 in the process.
Though he knows a hot shooting night by Vandy could easily deal his team's NCAA Tournament resume a serious blow, regardless of how the Cats play, Coach Cal isn't obsessing over what may or may not happen or even exactly how his team will look after a six-day layoff. He's worried about something much simpler.
"I have no idea, so hopefully we come out of the gate, we play well," Calipari said. "But even if we don't, I just want to see us play for 40 minutes: play, compete, battle, don't hang your heads, don't droop your shoulders, don't jog back because you're embarrassed on how you're playing. Play, battle, fight. That's all we're talking about."