LITTLE ROCK — Almost through with the two capsules per day prescribed for flu-like symptoms, there was some empathy for Kentucky coach John Calipari dealing with a stomach issue for which there is no prescription.
It is gut-check time for his Wildcats, who sleep-walked through their first game without Nerlens Noel. If they need more time to recuperate, they will be outside looking in when the NCAA Tournament field is announced. Even now, the Wildcats are on the bubble.
As long as Noel was covering for every defensive misstep by teammates, Kentucky was evolving into the second-best team in the Southeastern Conference and a sure thing for an NCAA bid.
Tennessee 88, Kentucky 58 was so lopsided that Calipari quit hollering at players and refs pretty early in the second half. Afterward, he said he was not surprised — that the Wildcats’ loss came one day after the worst practice in his four years in Lexington.
“If they weren’t embarrassed by this to come to me and say, ‘Tell us whatever you want; we’re going to listen to you,’ then they shouldn’t be at Kentucky,” Calipari said.
Although the NCAA selection committee can factor in injuries, such consideration is more about losing a star player for a game or two. This Kentucky team, like the 2010 Purdue team after the loss of All-American Robbie Hummel, will be completely overhauled. Until Hummel suffered a season-ending knee injury in late February, the Boilermakers were among the possible No. 1 seeds. They lost two of their last five and were a four seed.
Normally, troubles in Lexington would be worth only a cursory acknowledgement, but questions about how the Wildcats will perform without Noel and Arkansas’ rally past Missouri on Saturday altered the complexion of the SEC race with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
Offered a week ago, the conclusion that the SEC would get four teams in the NCAA is now shaky at best. Florida is a lock. Alabama is close. Both Kentucky and Ole Miss are 8-4 in the league; Arkansas and Missouri are 7-5, and 12-6 is the minimum.
If you think that the SEC will get four spots simply because there are 14 teams in the league, recall the plight of the Pac-12 in 2012. League champion Washington finished poorly and did not get in with a 14-4 conference record. Colorado won the conference tournament and Cal, the only other team invited, participated in the two play-in games in Dayton, Ohio.
Three straight home games gives Kentucky an opportunity to get back on track, although the Missouri game on Saturday could be difficult if point guard Phil Pressey comes to realize he has teammates. His hard-headed approach in Fayetteville and Missouri’s strange decision to allow B.J. Young a one-on-one path to the basket helped the Razorbacks.
Even if Kentucky does find a way to win three in a row, the Wildcats will have to win at Walton Arena, which is already sold out for the March 2 game, or face a must-win situation against Florida in the final game of the regular season.
Among the contenders, Ole Miss is in the best position with its next four games against teams that are under .500 in the league. The Rebels finish with a home game against Alabama and a road game vs. LSU.
Missouri must split with Florida and Kentucky this week and beat Arkansas in Columbia on March 5 to be viable. The game at Missouri is also big for the Razorbacks, who aren’t likely to win at Florida on Saturday, particularly after a Thursday night game vs. Georgia.
Mike Anderson’s advice to Young to let the game come to him probably applies to speculating about the next three weeks, but one at a time is no fun when March is just around the corner.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.