John Calipari has tried numerous tactics in recent weeks to light a spark within his Kentucky basketball team. One afternoon, he even staged an impromptu dodgeball game to loosen the mood and improve chemistry.
Nothing has worked.
Thursday’s 72-62 loss at Georgia marked the fourth defeat in the past seven games for the Wildcats, who will probably need to beat Florida in Saturday’s regular-season finale to have any shot of making the NCAA tournament.
Center Willie Cauley-Stein shrugged his shoulders when he was asked what Kentucky could do to turn things around.
“Have faith?” he said. “Go to church? Maybe that’s what we need to -- go to church as a team and pray for each other.”
Even divine intervention might not be enough to help the Wildcats at this point. If Kentucky can’t beat Arkansas and Georgia, there is no reason to believe it can get past a Florida squad many pundits have tagged as a Final Four contender.
The Gators defeated Calipari’s team 69-52 in Gainesville on Feb. 12. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s best player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in that contest and UK hasn’t been the same since. Granted, even before Noel’s injury, the Wildcats weren’t very good. Kentucky’s résumé includes very few quality wins -- and a bunch of bad losses.
“I’m mad,” guard Archie Goodwin told reporters after Thursday’s loss. “There’s no way we should lose to Georgia. There’s no way we should lose to Arkansas.
“When we play like we’re supposed to, there’s not anyone in the country we can’t beat. When we play like this, when we play soft as a team, anyone can beat us.”
Calipari, to his credit, said he is to blame for his squad’s collapse.
“I’m so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team,” he said Thursday night. “I’ve never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams ... cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win. Every one of them had a fight.
“If this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”
Here are a few other observations from Thursday’s games:
1. Does anyone want to win the Pac-12?
UCLA and Oregon entered the week tied for first in the conference standings with two games to play. Somehow, though, UCLA lost to last-place Washington State in Pullman on Wednesday, which meant Oregon could’ve clinched at least a share of the league's regular-season crown by beating Colorado on Thursday.
The Ducks responded by losing 76-53 in Boulder. And the Buffs didn’t even have Andre Roberson, who missed the game with a viral illness. Each team has one game remaining. UCLA plays at Washington on Saturday; Oregon takes on Utah in Salt Lake City the same day.
Whatever happens, no one can argue that the parity in the Pac-12 is greater than any conference in the country. Next week’s league tournament should be fun.
2. I loved the shot of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo jumping up and wrapping his arms around the neck of 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne during a timeout in the Spartans’ 58-43 victory over Wisconsin. Payne had just taken a hard fall under the basket after missing a dunk, but he eventually popped back up. Izzo loved seeing that toughness and resiliency -- not just from Payne, but from his entire team.
Michigan State entered the game toting three consecutive losses, all by single digits and all against ranked opponents. But by winning Thursday, Michigan State put itself in a position to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Indiana sits atop the conference standings at 13-4. Three other teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State) are 12-5.
If Michigan defeats Indiana on Sunday in Ann Arbor, four teams will finish in a tie for first. That’s assuming, of course, that Michigan State and Ohio State take care of business in their regular-season finales against Northwestern and Illinois, respectively.
Whatever happens, Michigan State should feel good about itself entering the Big Ten tournament following Thursday’s dominating victory over an excellent Wisconsin squad.
3. I’ve got to think Northwestern’s loss to Penn State on Thursday marked Bill Carmody’s final home game as the Wildcats’ head coach. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament and it won’t get there this year under Carmody, who is in his 13th season. Losing to the Big Ten’s worst team on Senior Night is about as bad as it gets. Duke assistant Chris Collins has been mentioned as a possible replacement. Another coach who would be a good fit: Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew.
4. Michael Snaer’s ability to come through in the clutch continues to amaze me. The Florida State guard scored on a left-handed runner in traffic with 4 seconds remaining to propel the Seminoles past Virginia 53-51. Snaer was fouled on the play, and he made the ensuing free throw.
The game winner was the fourth for Snaer this season and his sixth over the past two.
Virginia, which had fought back from an 11-point deficit to take the lead, has now lost four of its past six games. The Cavaliers are on the NCAA tournament bubble.