LEXINGTON — Coach John Calipari has talked often this long winter about the need for his young Wildcats to unload the burdens of youth in this fishbowl that is Kentucky basketball and just have fun.
And Calipari was optimistic that Thursday’s home date with the Arkansas Razorbacks was just what the doctor ordered.
Kentucky was coming off a gritty, 77-76 overtime win over LSU Saturday and figured to be out for blood against an Arkansas team that somehow managed to beat the Wildcats, 87-85, Jan. 14 in Fayetteville.
But Calipari figured wrong. Kentucky threw in an alarming late-season clunker Thursday and allowed the Razorbacks to post a 71-67 overtime victory.
“This was the game to have fun in because of how they play,” Calipari said of the Razorbacks. “They’re running and trapping and scrambling. There’s no real plays. Pass it, move it, one on one, get out and run...
“THIS was the game to have fun,” Calipari repeated.
But it wasn’t fun because Arkansas played like the game mattered and Kentucky did not.
“If you’re not into it, if you don’t have that energy, if you’re not into team, you can’t have fun,” Calipari said after his team fell to 21-7 overall and 10-4 in the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky’s loss enabled Florida to clinch the SEC’s regular season title.
Coach Mike Anderson’s Arkansas team, meanwhile, put itself back on the NCAA Tournament bubble, improving to 19-9 and 8-7.
Four Razorbacks scored in double figures, led by guard Michael Qualls with 14.
Calipari was dead on in his assessment of this debacle. Several Wildcats played as if they couldn’t be bothered with this pesky college basketball stuff.
Kentucky played indifferent on both ends of the court in the first half in falling behind 37-30. The Wildcats played well defensively in the second half, but remained terrible on the offensive end.
The obvious exception was sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who ‘led’ UK with 16 points and 13 rebounds. I use the word ‘led’ loosely.
“Willie Cauley-Stein single-handedly kept them in the game,” Anderson said.
“It just seems like the effort wasn’t there like normal,” Cauley-Stein said.
Freshman forward Julius Randle had 14 points and 10 rebounds for Kentucky.
“I never go into a game thinking we’re going to lose,” Randle said. “I never go into a game thinking we are not going to put the effort out that we should and do the little things. We just didn’t tonight.”
Nobody else who saw quality minutes for Kentucky played well.
Andrew Harrison had 14 points, but missed 10 of the 15 shots he took. Aaron Harrison had eight points on 2 of 12 from the field.
“Our guard play was horrendous today,” Calipari said.
James Young had 11 points on 4 of 12 shooting, but had just one rebound.
Aaron Harrison and Young turned the ball over four times each. Randle and Andrew Harrison each had three turnovers.
Andrew, Aaron and Young all drove inside repeatedly and either tried an ill-fated lob or a layup, and most of the time the Razorbacks swatted the ball away.
“They gave us layups,” Calipari said of the Razorbacks. “They backed away, and the guys were throwing lobs that weren’t there.”
Kentucky still could have beaten this ho-hum Arkansas team, despite all this, but the Wildcats were just 12 of 22 at the free throw line.
Up 57-52 with 4:43 left in regulation, Kentucky’s big guns bricked free throw after free throw down the stretch to allow the Razorbacks to take the game to OT at 60-60.
“We missed all the free throws that mattered,” Calipari said.
Arkansas made all the free throws that mattered. The Razorbacks were 16 of 16 at the free throw line.
And make no mistake about it: The numbers all add up to the fact that, again, too many of the Wildcats did not have their heads in the game.
Calipari said he “had two guys that gave up on the game.”
He did not name names, assuming we all know who they were. I’d suggest it’s easier to say who did not throw in the towel: Cauley-Stein and Randle.
Randle simply tired late.
“He played too many minutes,” Calipari said of Randle.
Well, OK, but the last I heard the coach can take a player out of the game at any time. It’s an unspoken part of the coaching contract.
Kentucky moves on to play at lowly South Carolina Saturday night at 6. The Wildcats host lowly Alabama Tuesday night at 9, and then close the regular-season (it can’t come soon enough) March 8 at No. 1-ranked Florida.
Can’t wait for that one.
Calipari indicated he has little idea what to expect from his team Saturday at USC.
“It’s like you’re waiting to see what will happen next,” he said.
“We took two steps back today,” he added. “It was frustrating.”
To see more photos from the game, click here.