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February 19, 2013
As Vandy visits, Cats still hope for turnaround
Put the protagonist in peril or you don't have much of a story. Overcoming odds. Battling adversity. That's the stuff epics are made of.
So far, this Kentucky basketball season hasn't looked so epic.
But John Calipari isn't giving up hope that this story can have a happy ending for his Wildcats (17-8, 8-4), who host Vanderbilt (10-14, 4-8) on Wednesday.
"Whatever we want to make of this season, we can do," Calipari said Tuesday. "We could be the story of the year - of recovery and all that. We can do that if they choose to do that."
If the hero of such a tale needs first to hit rock bottom, then the Cats fit the bill.
On Saturday, in Kentucky's first game without freshman Nerlens Noel - out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee - the Wildcats were trounced 88-58 at Tennessee.
That sort of start to Kentucky's post-Noel quest for an identity cast some dark shadows over the remainder of the season. The NCAA Tournament is far from a sure thing. There are no guaranteed wins left.
But the Cats insist that loss won't linger.
"I don't think it affects our belief," guard Jarrod Polson said. "We think we're a good team."
Calipari keeps agreeing. But that's not enough.
"We've got to have that belief in each other," guard Julius Mays said. "It can't just be (Calipari) having the belief. We're the guys out there playing. The players make the plays. The coach can only do so much."
And the players, Mays said, aren't doing enough.
They didn't in last week's 69-52 loss at Florida (in which Noel was injured) nor in Saturday's beating at Tennessee.
"I just felt like guys didn't come to fight," Mays said. "I don't know if it was because the effect of Nerlens was still going on, but I kind of think that was a cop-out. In order to be good and to win, you've got to be able to play through adversity."
Kentucky has more than its share to face now.
The Commodores hardly are among the SEC's elite, but they're a solid defensive team facing a UK squad that struggles to score. And given Kentucky's performance at Tennessee, the Cats certainly don't look like a lock to beat anyone.
Mays said UK is only looking forward, not back. But Polson said there are lessons to be learned from Saturday's implosion in Knoxville.
"They played a great game," Polson said. "Obviously we played terrible. Sometimes games like that happen. Yeah, maybe Nerlens affected it a little bit, but I don't know if we'd have done any better with Nerlens in that game. We just didn't play well. I guess it kind of was a wakeup call and made us realize that we do need to work on some things."
And there's time to work on those things, to rewrite the story.
And though Mays doesn't want his teammates push the panic button yet, he also knows that time's running out to change this season's storyline.
"I don't like to have the mindset that your back's against the wall, because when you play with that much pressure you're liable to play bad," Mays said. "I just want guys to play open, with a free mind, but to know that we got work to do."