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By the time the game was over and Vanderbilt had won by the Cro-Magnon score of 57-52 -- its first victory in the 30-year history of this building -- the night had become a two-hour 911 call. An urgent APB was issued for missing offense, missing poise, missing leadership, missing heart and missing talent at a tottering powerhouse.
When it was over, the only thing left was for a senior walk-on to rip his teammates and himself.
"We're just immature," said guard Ravi Moss, the only Wildcat who could shoot straight all night, scoring 16 points. "We're not serious minded. We need to concentrate on being serious about basketball. We're taking everyone's best shot and we're not punching back. It's time for us to start listening."
|Morris' presence in the middle hasn't been enough for UK.|
They won't like what they hear -- namely, widespread outrage in the commonwealth. A night that began with the crowd of 23,643 giving a standing ovation to prodigal center Randolph Morris when he pulled off his warm-ups and reported to the scorer's table ended with a fan yelling at the players as they walked off the court -- and other fans yelling at the fan who yelled at the players.
The crisis is officially full-blown in Big Blue Nation. Randolph to the Rescue is only a start on fixing a flawed powerhouse.
Wayward NBA aspirant Morris returned to action for the first time this season and was pretty good: 10 points and seven rebounds in 28 active minutes. But he was not the reincarnation of Dan Issel and Sam Bowie combined, which is about what it would take to turn this Kentucky team into a Final Four contender.
Right now, it's not even certain that the 10-5 Wildcats are an NCAA Tournament team. Playing in a diluted Southeastern Conference should help, especially with a fitter and more focused Morris fully engaged in the lineup. But nothing is guaranteed at this shaky juncture.
"We haven't really played Kentucky basketball," point guard Rajon Rondo said.
Might be time to start.
Morris and the Cats did not live up to the cheeky sign an insurgent Vandy fan was waving from the Kentucky student section:
The sign referred to the fax Tubby Smith found on his desk, months after it had gone missing, that helped restore Morris' eligibility after he'd been suspended for the season by the NCAA. Miracles like that can happen -- but now Smith needs another one to fix the many things wrong with his ninth Kentucky team.
His teams have rarely been offensive masterpieces during his time in Lexington, but this is brutal. Just three days after this dysfunctional group was blown out 73-46 at Kansas, it responded with a similarly inept showing at home.
Consider the gory details:
• The Cats have failed to score 60 points the past three games. Last time that happened: 1985. For those scoring at home, that's pre-3-point era.
• The Cats' three-game point total of 157 was their lowest since the final three games of the 1981-82 season.
• The Cats have lost consecutive games for the first time in four years.
• The Cats bounced back from their debacle at Kansas by promptly falling behind 8-0 and led for a grand total of 1 minute and 16 seconds on Tuesday night. They went the first 3:05 of the game without a point, and the first 8:33 of the second half without a field goal.
With apologies to the gritty and resourceful Commodores, who could be heard celebrating raucously through the walls of their dressing room, Kentucky's meltdown is the news of the night. Just Vandy's luck that its breakthrough victory in Lexington would instead be a referendum on the neurotic nature of the home team.
But even Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings conceded as much after watching his team shoot 34 percent and somehow win.
"We're thrilled to not have to answer questions anymore about the streak," Stallings said. "Unfortunately, that may be one of the better parts of the victory."
The only redeeming element of the night for Kentucky was Morris. He showed some of the reasons why he was a McDonald's All-American coming out of high school: solid hands and feet, decent touch around the hoop and good agility in the paint. His offensive moves remain less refined than you'd expect after spending three months with nothing to do but work on them -- a failure of the UK coaching staff -- but the 6-foot-10, 266-pound sophomore showed what a dramatic upgrade he is over the three 7-footers on Smith's roster.
Still, his teammates couldn't find him when the game was on the line.
The last of Morris' seven shots was a tip-in basket with two minutes left that cut Vandy's lead to two, 50-48. Next trip down, with a chance to tie the game, Morris pinned his defender on the low block and called for the ball in vain.
Rondo looked at Morris but didn't like the angle for the entry pass, so he dished to Moss in the corner. Instead of dumping it inside, Moss rose for a contested 3-pointer that became a deflected airball.
"I should've thrown it to him," Moss acknowledged.
Vandy scored in transition, and Kentucky's next trip resulted in another airball, this time a drive by Joe Crawford over three defenders. Vanderbilt grabbed the rebound, got fouled and made a free throw, which pretty well cinched the game.
"That's not basketball," Smith said of his team's stagnation and repeated one-on-one forays to the basket. "Basketball is a game of teamwork. We just don't seem to be getting real movement."
The only movement Kentucky is making is down. It slid out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in five years this week, it slid to 0-1 in the SEC and it slid out onto the NCAA Tournament bubble -- a preposterous place for this program to be.
But that's where the Cats are, largely because of some wildly inconsistent recruiting by Smith. His roster contains more dead wood than the Petrified Forest.
The senior class consists of walk-on Moss, two other bench-jockey guards and starter Patrick Sparks -- a transfer from Western Kentucky whose production seems to dwindle every game. The junior class consists of JUCO transfer Rekalin Sims and four frontcourt players who should be spare parts -- yet Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas combine to average 40 minutes per game and Lukasz Obrzut has been the starting center. The freshman class of Jared Carter and Adam Williams is a non-factor.
That leaves the decorated sophomores to carry the program -- and so far that isn't happening. Rondo, Crawford and Ramel Bradley have had their moments, but they've also taken turns sulking or sitting on the bench. And then there's Morris, the literal centerpiece to the class.
He hasn't ridden to the rescue yet. And if this fraying team leaves it all on his shoulders, he never will.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.