Instead of defending its national title, Kentucky will spend the rest of the year competing in the 32-team National Invitational Tournament, along with Southeastern Conference foes Tennessee and Alabama.
A year ago, Kentucky was a program that was riding high as the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won the school’s eighth national title with a squad that included a solid mixture of veterans and newcomers.
The last team to win the national title and compete in the NIT the following season was the University of North Carolina in 2010. The Wildcats took the same tumble after Kentucky defeated Duke to win the national championship in 1978. The following season, the Wildcats lost to Clemson 69-68 in overtime in the opening round of the NIT at Rupp Arena.
Calipari was disappointed his team didn’t make the NCAA¿field, but plans to approach the NIT¿in the same manner as he coached the team to a national championship a year ago.
“We are going to use this time to make us better,” he said. “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.”
As evidenced during the regular season, last year’s national championship team was a tough act to follow.
The warning signs began early when the Wildcats lost two non-conference games to Baylor and Texas A&M at Rupp Arena, Calipari’s first two home setbacks as coach of the Wildcats. Like the Wildcats, theBears and Aggies weren’t among the 68 teams who received bids to the prestigious tournament.
Although the Wildcats finished second in the conference during the regular season and received a double bye in the league tournament, the team’s six conference setbacks during the regular-season were costly and home victories over Missouri and Florida, along with a road victory at Mississippi weren’t enough to overshadow the stumbling blocks. The stack of league losses – back-to-back at Florida and Tennessee – along with two more in consecutive fashion at Arkansas and Georgia were daunting and proved to be costly losses.
A 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference Tournament was evidently the last straw in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee. With an NCAA Tournament bid hanging in the balance, the Wildcats failed to make a last-minute impression on the committee. Instead of giving Kentucky a chance to defend its national championship, tournament officials elected to reward Middle Tennessee for its 28-win season and ability to compete on the road. It also decided to reward the Blue Raiders’ senior class and took notice of Middle’s 65-62 win over SEC Tournament champion Ole Miss on Dec. 8 in Murfreesboro.
It would be easy to blame the selection committee for choosing teams such as Middle Tennessee in the at-large category, but the Wildcats failed to take care of their own business on the court during the course of the season.
Pointing fingers is the easy way out. Looking in the mirror and accepting the blame and accepting responsibility for your actions is the right thing to do. That applies to this year’s Kentucky team from top to bottom.