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KENTUCKY BASKETBALL OPINION: Georgia loss means Cats have a huge challenge the rest of the way (03/05)

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By Chuck Jones

 

By CHUCK JONES cjones@thenewsenterprise.com LEXINGTON Kentucky junior Jodie Meeks trudged off the court at Rupp Arena on Wednesday night, refusing to look up and staring at the floor each step of the way, but his face was one of disbelief. Like Meeks, junior Ramon Harris’ trek to the locker room was a slow one, glancing up in the stands with a look of shock and devastation at the same time. In season full of ups and downs, the Wildcats might have hit rock bottom after crashing to new depths with a 90-85 loss to the lowly Georgia Bulldogs, the bottom feeders of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. “I guess it didn’t matter to us judging by the way we played,” Kentucky junior guard Michael Porter said. “This was a big game and we needed a win. This is a tough loss, a big loss especially at home against a team on the bottom of the SEC.” This defeat was crippling for a variety of reasons and they all deal with the postseason – assuming the Wildcats even get the chance to go to the Big Dance. Kentucky needed a win to keep pace with SEC East frontrunners South Carolina and Tennessee, which are both 9-5 in conference play heading into tonight’s showdown in Columbia, S.C. Now, the Wildcats have no shot at an Eastern Division championship. Those hopes faded away as they let Georgia, which ranks near the bottom of every statistical category, come into Rupp Arena and outplay them in nearly every phase of the game. Kentucky still has a shot at a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. But in order to do that, the Wildcats must win at Florida on Saturday. Florida is 8-7 in conference play like Kentucky and Vanderbilt is a game behind at 7-8. If the Wildcats don’t earn the bye, winning four games in four days to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament seems nearly impossible for a team, which lacks depth and has shown signs of wearing down in the midst of this three-game losing skid. Winning three games in three days sounds much more attainable, but not likely unless they turn things around. This defeat is even more magnified when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Losing at home is one thing. Losing at home to a team like Georgia, which had two conference wins prior to Wednesday, is unspeakable. You hear about good losses and bad losses. Make no mistake this was a bad loss. As if this loss wasn’t bad enough, the Wildcats have lost seven of their last 10 games and their tournament resume wasn’t the strongest to begin with. Kentucky ranks 67th in the RPI standings, which is a measure of strength of schedule and how a team does against that schedule. The RPI is used by the NCAA Tournament committee in selecting and seeding teams. Kentucky’s record against teams in the top 50 of the RPI is 3-6 and 6-4 against teams ranked from 51-150. That’s not too impressive, especially when one considers Georgia was ranked 206th in RPI entering Wednesday’s game. The streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is in serious jeopardy. Could a new streak of NIT appearances begin? “I try not to think about that,” Meeks said when asked about the NIT. “We have one more game. Our goal is winning as many games as possible. I like our chances against anybody.” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie didn’t sound as confident. He took the blame for the loss, but he said the team “played hard, we just didn’t play smart.” That’s been an ongoing problem during this recent stretch and Gillispie even acknowledged “a lot of folks seem to be having good games against us.” After pulling out to a 25-16 lead, Gillispie said the Wildcats made mistake after mistake, letting Georgia back into the game and giving the Bulldogs hope. “I’m having a hard time finding five guys that play hard, smart and together the whole time. We are trying a lot of different things but none of them seem to be working right now,” Gillispie said. “I don’t think they have show a great deal of maturity of accepting a challenge” That’s not a good thing as Kentucky’s biggest challenge is ahead. As Porter said, “we need to take care of business Saturday and go into the SEC Tournament looking to win.” Talk about a challenge. Chuck Jones is the sports editor for The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 505-1759, or at cjones@thenewsenterprise.com