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With two games remaining in the regular season and the Southeastern Conference tournament set for next week, the UK men’s basketball team still has several scenarios where it could play its way into the NCAA Tournament.
Almost all of those scenarios start with a win at Georgia Thursday.
The Bulldogs are 14-15 this season with an 8-8 record in SEC play. A loss to Georgia, ranked No. 130 in the RPI, would be UK’s first loss to a team outside of the RPI top 100 this season and might spell an end to their hopes of earning an at-large bid to the tournament. The Wildcats missed an opportunity to boost their NCAA Tournament resume in a loss at Arkansas Saturday.
“What I’m worried about is just us being the best version of ourselves,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “We weren’t at Arkansas. We weren’t. They wanted it more. They played more physical. They came at us, and we kind of backed away.”
If the Cats are to win Thursday, several players will need to rebound from poor performances at Arkansas.
Senior guard Julius Mays scored three points on 1-of-8 shooting versus the Razorbacks, after averaging 17.5 points per game in UK’s previous two contests.
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer has made just four of his last 19 field goal attempts (21 percent). He is averaging 4.5 points per game during that four-game span.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress fouled out with nine points and four rebounds in 17 minutes against Arkansas. Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow scored 10 points against the Razorbacks but tallied just two assists to go with two turnovers.
“I think we’ve got a bunch of good guys that are still learning,” Calipari said. “When stuff gets a little ragged they’re not at their best, and that’s where we’ve got to learn.”
While Georgia’s resume may be lacking, they may still present a difficult challenge for the Cats on Thursday.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 20-point win at home versus Tennessee, the second win versus the Volunteers this season. The Bulldogs also have two wins versus Texas A&M, which won at Rupp Arena earlier this season.
The Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (61.4 points per game) and second in field goal percentage defense (38.6)
Sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is averaging 18 points, second most in the SEC, and 6.9 rebounds per game. He is one of 10 NCAA Division I players to score in double figures every game this season.
“He has a pro jump shot because he gets great lift when shooting the ball,” said UK assistant coach John Robic of Caldwell-Pope. “It looks like it’s going in every time he shoots it. He’s able to post up smaller guards in their system.”
To avoid a loss to Georgia, the Cats will also need to overcome recent struggles on the road.
UK has experienced more road success than most SEC teams this season, with wins at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Auburn, but the Cats have lost their last three road games by a combined 60 points.
“I don’t know what it’s like for other people on the team, but the game feeling is the same, whether you’re getting booed or whether you’re getting cheered on,” said freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein. “It’s all the same. You’re still bouncing the same ball, shooting it in the same goal. You’ve just got to execute.”
A win versus Georgia would clinch a double-bye for UK in the SEC Tournament. At worse, the Cats would be the No. 4 seed in Nashville, meaning they would not play until Friday and would need just three victories to win the tournament title.
Despite the high stakes, players are trying to focus only on the task at hand.
“The only thing that’s on that’s on the line tomorrow night is a win and a loss,” said junior guard Jon Hood. “That’s the only thing we’re worried about, that’s the only thing on our minds. We don’t care about Florida on Saturday. We don’t care about the SEC Tournament right now. We don’t care about the NCAA, any of that. All we care about is playing our best, come out playing tough, together and doing what it takes to get a win.”
Time may be running out on the Cats’ chances to start playing the way they need to to make a postseason run, but their coach has not given up hope.
“I still have the same vision,” Calipari said. “I told them: I believe in the team, and I’m going out with the idea that we’re going to write a heck of a story. That’s going to be a heck of a story before it’s all said and done — if you want it to.”
You can read more from Calipari’s pregame news conference on the KyForward UK Sports Notebook Tumblr.