Defending champ Kentucky left on sideline
by Kyle Tucker, USA TODAY Sports
The long roller-coaster ride, after so many sharp climbs and violent dives, finally came to a screeching halt Sunday evening.
The University of Kentucky basketball team was left out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 — the last of the dark days under then-coach Billy Gillispie — and only the second time in 22 years.
The Wildcats are just the fifth defending NCAA champion to miss the tournament the following season and now await their assignment in the consolation event: the National Invitation Tournament.
It’s a bitter end to a disappointing season that started with such promise.
Kentucky (21-11) opened the season ranked No. 3 despite losing its top six players to the NBA.
Most figured it was another plug-and-play year for coach John Calipari, who brought in his fourth straight top-rated recruiting class. But this team lacked last season’s veteran nucleus and didn’t have a true leader.
Nerlens Noel, the nation’s top shot-blocker, was the closest thing to it — but he went down with a season-ending knee injury Feb. 12.
The Wildcats were already an iffy NCAA team with Noel, considering a lopsided loss at Notre Dame and home losses to marginal Baylor and Texas A&M teams, and they went 4-4 without him. They lost all four games away from home in that span — by an average of 17.3 points — including a pair to teams with losing records. Friday night’s 16-point loss to lowly Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals sealed UK’s fate.
Those defeats, among UK’s seven losses by double digits this season, canceled out three victories against teams that made the NCAA tournament: No. 3 seed Florida, No. 9 seed Missouri and No. 12 seed Ole Miss. The ‘Cats beat the Rebels on the road and toppled the Gators and Tigers after losing Noel. Kentucky went 3-1 against that trio of teams.
That gives the ‘Cats, who finished second in the SEC, some beef with the selection committee. Among the final few at-large selections, only Boise State (four) had more wins against top-50 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index than UK’s three. La Salle … [For more on Defending champ Kentucky left on the sideline, click here.]