Looking to go against the grain of its season by claiming a fourth straight victory, the Cats reverted back to old habits and crushed any restored hope of an unfathomable at-large bid in their 71-67 loss to Florida.
Kentucky just did not appear to be the same beast it had been over the past two weeks. Even through a first half in which it led for a 15:58 stretch, the warning signs were there: nine turnovers, four assists and 13 more free throw attempts. The Gators lurked through it all, making the 39-38 score at intermission feel fortunate.
Things came undone in the second half. Not all at once, but slowly and surely. The two schools exchanged the lead seven times over the first 8:23, and four more times from 6:46 to 3:29, but the tandem of Tyree Appleby (11 points) and Tre Mann (21 points) down the stretch proved too much to overcome on a day the Cats were off their game.
“We had some bad play, individual bad play today, and that happens,” John Calipari said postgame. “They are not machines. They are not robots. We had a couple guys play one of their worst games, no energy. And you know, we still had our chance to win.”
Keion Brooks Jr., a typically reliable presence for a spark, was one of the couple Cal mentioned. He was a team-worst minus-14 in his 21 minutes of action, recording only four points and four rebounds to go with three turnovers. Everyone was shocked at the lack of impact, including his Hall of Fame coach, who is confident we’ll see him return to form.
“Really surprising. I have no idea,” Calipari told reporters about the lone 2020 returnee. “But I'm going to say this: I love him. He's played great for us… He wasn't very good today. But let's see if the next game he comes back and he's better.”
Ole Miss comes up on Tuesday, but the more notable opponent news came when Calipari discussed adding an opponent between the Rebels and Gamecocks, who Kentucky will face next Saturday. He admitted the team thought about scheduling someone to replace Texas A&M this week as well, but didn’t sound too fond of the idea anymore.
“We had a top team, a top-ranked team that we had discussed, thinking about playing Thursday. And we had another team that we had discussed playing on Thursday,” he said. “But you know what, let us just build some confidence. You know, South Carolina, who we have to play Saturday, just won by 30… [Ole Miss] is playing really well.”
With the loss essentially knocking them from double-bye status at the SEC Tournament – they still have a faint chance, but it requires seven different games to break the right way – and truly ending any opportunity at getting to .500 before the NCAA Tournament, a game against one of the country’s best would bring no tangible positive. Cal has been steadfast in belief this team could earn an at-large bid, but that well has now dried up.
“We’re worried about Mississippi,” he commented when asked about NCAA odds. “I'm not worried about that other stuff.”
Davion Mintz and Isaiah Jackson continued their stretches of strong play, putting up 21 points and 11 points respectively. The graduate guard had three steals too, while Jackson wreaked havoc in the paint, swatting three more shots.
Kentucky and Ole Miss face off on Tuesday, Mar. 2 at 9:00 p.m. E.T. in Oxford. The game is set to be televised on ESPN.