Cats seek motivation as they open NIT play

Julius Mays had braced himself for bad news.
The Kentucky senior had every reason to believe that the Wildcats would be left out of the NCAA Tournament, and so as he settled in to watch Sunday's Selection Show, he was prepared not to hear the Wildcats' name called.
"I kind of prepared myself for the worst just so it wouldn't hurt as bad," said Mays, whose team did in fact miss out on an NCAA invite. "But it's still a deep wound and it's going to haunt me for a while."
The healing process, such as it is, begins Tuesday night with an NIT first-round game at Robert Morris in Moon Township, Pa. It's a small consolation for the Cats (21-11), but a postseason test nonetheless.
"Do we want to play?" Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Do we want to have pride? Do we want to go forward and learn? We got a young team, let's use this as an experience. Or do we want to let go of the rope? We're going to find out real quick on Tuesday."
They're legitimate questions.
The NIT is a different animal, where wins and losses often depend as much on motivation as on talent. Kentucky came closer than did Robert Morris (23-10) to an NCAA invitation, and its disappointment could creep onto the court.
Add in the quirk of Kentucky - the No. 1 overall seed - being sent on the road to Robert Morris because of staff scheduling conflicts with UK hosting the NCAA Tournament this week at Rupp Arena, and it's a recipe for the upset-minded Colonials to have a motivational edge.
"(In the) NIT, you see teams every year that have let-downs and get knocked out first round by teams that some people have never heard of," junior Jon Hood said. "Obviously everybody’s heard of Robert Morris. They made the tournament quite a few years in a row. They’re on TV a couple times a year. They’re really good - and they can beat us - but we don’t want to get knocked out by them."
But Kentucky played in its last game like a team without a great deal of interest in seeing its season continue. With an NCAA Tournament bid possibly up for grabs, the Cats were flat (and flattened) in a 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal round.
That loss - in which UK shot 34.6 percent and trailed by as many as 21 points - might have cost the Cats an NCAA Tournament bid and gave Calipari little ammunition with which to fight their exclusion.
"If we beat Vanderbilt and we didn't get in, I would have been very upset and very vocal," Calipari said. "But by losing to Vandy, we put it in the (selection) committee's hands and they made a choice. And the choices, all those teams were about the same, and they chose not us. So I'm not saying anything about it."
What he is saying is that he'll learn a lot about his team Tuesday night in suburban Pittsburgh. Calipari tweeted on Monday that he didn't mind playing on the road to open the NIT because "this team needs to prove it wants to continue to play before our fans pay for tickets."
"I think that is the right thing to say," Mays said. "We don't want fans to go buy tickets (when we) might have a few guys that don't really want to be there and show it and we lay another egg in the first game. I think we do have to prove ourselves, that we want to play. I think we do have something to prove, so I hope all the guys are ready to play."
There's no telling, of course. That's been a consistent theme with this Kentucky team. And after an emotionally draining loss to Vanderbilt, it's fair to wonder how much the Cats have left in the tank.
"We're still young," Mays said. "I mean, I'm not as young as them, but they're still young kids. They should have all the energy in the world. It's obviously not what we want to do, but we still get the chance to play basketball and get a chance to play in front of our fans. So that's the most important thing."
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Charles L. Sewall Center (3,056), Moon Township, Pa.
TV: ESPN (Bob Wischusen play by play, Jimmy Dykes analyst).
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst).
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Kentucky by 5.5
Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 1-0
In NIT: First meeting
Coaches' records: Calipari 0-0 vs. Robert Morris; Toole 0-0 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 92, Robert Morris 67, Dec. 30, 1993, Lexington, Ky.
Jeff Sheppard scored 18 points and Jared Prickett 17, and Wildcats coach Rick Pitino drew praise from Colonials coach Jarrett Dunham for calling off the dogs in what nonetheless was a lopsided win. UK led 52-29 at halftime against a Robert Morris team that was playing its eighth straight road game to start the season. The Colonials turned over the ball on nine of their first 12 possessions. Rodrick Rhodes had 13 points for UK.
Keys to the Game
1. Three-Mendous: Robert Morris' upset chances likely rest on its ability to make the long ball. The Colonials made a school record 284 of them this season. Robert Morris leads the Northeast Conference in three-point field goals made per game at 8.6, and the Colonials are shooting 38 percent as a team. Five Robert Morris players have made at least 34 three-pointers this season, and two players have made at least 69 threes. The top five players in RMU's rotation all are shooting at least 34 percent from long range.
2. Making the Point: Robert Morris point guard Velton Jones is the man who makes the Colonials' offense go, and he's been doing that since he arrived. The senior has 543 career assists, which ranks second all-time on the RMU career list. He has 150 assists and 71 turnovers this season, and he averages 10.9 points per game and is shooting 34 percent fro three-point range. Jones also is a tough, vocal leader. " I've seen him on tape just go grab a guy," UK coach John Calipari said. "But it's because he has the ability to physically dominate a game that he can do that and no one messes with him."
3. Instant Offense: Though he likely won't start, RMU guard Karvel Anderson likely will be Kentucky's top defensive challenge. The 6-foot-2 junior averages a team-high 12.7 points per game and plays starters' minutes (25 per game) off the bench. Anderson has started 10 games this season, all in one midseason stretch. He's come off the bench in the Colonials' past 14 games. Anderson's 78 three-pointers are the most ever by a Robert Morris junior, and he has 205 for his career, good for seventh on the school's all-time list.