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Wildcats are their own worst enemy
John Calipari’s demeanor gave it all away.
As he desperately screamed and waved his arms Sunday afternoon while he watched his top-ranked team’s seven-point lead begin to evaporate in the final minutes of the SEC tournament championship game against third-seeded Vanderbilt, he was helpless.
He tried everything, but nothing could stop his team’s collapse. And as the final seconds ticked away in a deflating 71-64 loss, ending his uninspired Wildcats’ 24-game winning streak that lasted more than three months, he looked like a deer in headlights on the sideline.
He still had the look after the game. For good reason, because despite his team being the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, its once magical season is firmly on the brink.
“How about this: Maybe now everybody realizes we’re not invincible,” said Calipari, whose team has a 32-2 record. “We’re like everybody else out there.”
And while Calipari would like you to believe his team is just like the others, it’s not. Unlike everybody else, he practically has an NBA starting lineup.
But despite having all that talent, he’s got a big problem: After months of dominance Kentucky has plateaued in recent weeks, and he doesn’t know how to fix it.
For Calipari-coached teams, such a predicament is hardly new. In fact, it’s generally the rule, not the exception.
It’s why Calipari’s teams are renowned for underachieving in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re not on the ropes,” senior forward Eloy Vargas said.
But the Wildcats are, no matter how they spin it. It’s not like Calipari didn’t see this defeat coming.
After all, his team had been unimpressive in lethargic victories against LSU and Florida earlier in the SEC tournament.
Although Calipari wouldn’t admit Kentucky was struggling, he knew it. That’s exactly why he downplayed the importance of winning the SEC tournament Saturday, just in case the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt.
He can spin it all he wants, but his team’s flaws — including sleepwalking lapses, a tendency to be stagnant offensively and suspect defensive fundamentals — are major issues. Oh, and don’t forget Kentucky shies away from physical play and has a short bench.
It’s all a recipe for another Calipari team to disappoint in the NCAA tournament, especially with a difficult path looming potentially as soon as the third round against underachieving Connecticut.
“Teams are out to get us,” freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “It’s tough being No. 1.”
But Kentucky’s worst enemy is actually itself, which Calipari stressed after Sunday’s loss.
“We’re going to have to execute,” he said. “We’re going to have to play hard. We’re going to have to play with some aggressiveness and intensity, or we will get beat.”
Actually, count on that happening, no matter what Calipari says. This team won’t win the national championship because of his inability to rectify its problems.
Not that they are insurmountable. A fundamentals-savvy coach like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo could fix this team in time for the NCAA tournament, but not Calipari.
It’s too little too late for a team that became complacent while feasting on a middling SEC lacking any other legitimate national title contenders. Of course, Calipari keeps saying all the right things.
"I really like this team,” he said.
But as Calipari trudged back to his team’s locker room after his postgame press conference Sunday with two cell phones in one hand and a Diet Coke in the other, he was much more solemn.
His demeanor once again told it all.
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