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March 19, 2013

Cats fall in NIT first round, look ahead to 2013-14

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. - John Calipari was born here, grew up just down the road from the Robert Morris campus where his Kentucky basketball team saw its season take its final breath on Tuesday.

And maybe that was fitting. Poetic, somehow.

As the echoes faded and the court-storming students filed out of the Charles L. Sewall Center after the Colonials' 59-57 NIT first round win against Calipari's Wildcats, the Kentucky coach already was talking about getting back to his roots.

It was a hard, humbling season for Kentucky (21-12), which went from cutting the national championship nets in New Orleans last April to bowing out on the road in the NIT this March.

Calipari doesn't anticipate another.

"We will be a tough ball team next year," Calipari said. "We will be a tough, hard-nosed, fighting team next year. I promise you, we will be, because I can't sit through that. I can't take it."

For all their glitz, it's grit that's defined Calipari's best teams. His 2012 NCAA national champs at Kentucky had it. So did his 2008 national runners-up at Memphis. It was lacking this season, more obviously when Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury, but even before then.

"When we lost Nerlens, we thought we could recover, but we just weren't tough enough," Calipari said.

Always, Kentucky showed flashes. It was no different on Tuesday. Playing in front of a fired-up school-record crowd of 3,444 at Robert Morris, his players - perhaps, Calipari suggested, still stinging from a loss to Vanderbilt that likely bounced them from the NCAA Tournament - were shellshocked to start.

The Colonials (24-10) raced to a 10-0 lead and looked poised to run the Cats out of the gym. But UK fought back into the lead late in the first half and trailed 28-27 at halftime.

Trailing by 13 with 8:52 to play in the second, the Cats reeled off a 17-4 run and tied the game at 53-53 on Archie Goodwin's putback with 3:15 to play. Ultimately, though, Kentucky couldn't get the stops it needed.

Robert Morris inbounded with less than 10 seconds to paly. Willie Cauley-Stein blocked a layup attempt, then fouled Mike McFadden on a rebound. McFadden made two free throws to put the Colonials in front 59-57.

[d]Kyle Wiltjer[/db]'s three-pointer at the buzzer was long. Kentucky's season was cut short.

"I wanted to keep coaching, and the reason was I wanted to keep coaching, hoping the light would go on for Alex (Poythress), the light would go on for Archie, the light would go on for Kyle," Calipari said. "You don't know when it goes on, but when it does and they feel it it's good for them. So the more I could coach them, the more I could try to get it."

Instead, he'll try again next year. He might do it with a vastly different cast.

Calipari said after the game he's not ready yet to meet individually with his players, but he will. He'll discuss with each of them whether they'll return next season.

Four of them - Goodwin, Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Noel - are NBA prospects, through the three who played Tuesday said with varying degrees of certainty that they plan to return next season.

Goodwin said it's "not a question" of whether he'll turn pro, saying he's not ready. Poythress said he thinks he needs to return. Cauley-Stein said he'll need to get a feel for his NBA stock - and his family's financial need for him to turn pro - before he makes a firm decision, but said he'd like to return.

"I'm not ready for the real world yet," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm still a kid. I'm not in no hurry to leave. But if it came down to my family really needed me to leave, then I'll leave. But I have unfinished business here. I want to win a ring."

He's not alone in that.

Goodwin pointed to former Cats Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who returned for their sophomore years in 2011-12 and helped a freshman class that included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague to win the national title and said it's the model he, Poythress and Cauley-Stein should follow.

"If any of us were saying we think we should leave, then we’d all be delusional," Goodwin said. "None of us need to leave."

Those are emotional things, said at an emotional time, after a season-ending loss. There may yet be players who enter the NBA Draft. And Noel will have a decision to make, likely based on the progress he makes in rehabilitating his knee.

But whoever returns, Kentucky will be set on a better season. This one left bad tastes in the mouths of players, coaches and fans alike.

"(The coaches) put so much work and time in, they just won a national championship last year, they make it into the tournament every year and go deep in it," Cauley-Stein said. "Then you have us and you lose in the first round of the NIT. It's like a slap in the face to the program and the coaches. That's the way I see it, at least."

It's not the only shot Calipari will take. There have been jokes at Kentucky's expense and there will be more. The coach said he'll no mind to his critics even as he reevaluates what he'll accept from his players going forward.

"The only good news is, because we have this group coming in, they're not going to be No. 1 in the country, because they'll say, 'Well, maybe you can't do it with young guys,'" Calipari said. "And I come back to, we did it last year, won a national title with young players. But that'll be out there. So we have something to prove: You can do it with young players, if you have some veterans sprinkled in who come with a great attitude and understand what they have to do.

"If there's any doubters, have at it. You can doubt all you want. This program's in great shape. Kids across the country still want to come here. It's all good."


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