"We're not ready to win that kind of game."
That's what John Calipari told his team after the 69-59 home court loss to third-ranked Florida. They'll get another chance in three weeks, in a much tougher venue, to show that they're ready and thus capable of making some noise in March Madness. And to me, a big key to closing that gap comes down to two words--mental toughness.
James Young told reporters after the game that "we learned that we could play with other teams out there that are really good. From here out, we've got to learn to play the whole game and not just one half."
That's a good lesson to learn--except, that was the takeaway from the Michigan State game on November 12. The lesson from this loss, on February 15, is not that you can play "with" one of the best teams but that you have to be mentally tough enough to make the plays that make the difference between winning and losing.
Challenged to bring the team home, the Big Blue crowd in Rupp Arena answered the call--as they did last year when Florida failed to score in the final seven-and-a-half minutes. This team, though, the veteran Gator team didn't wilt and so it was up to the UK players on the court to take the game from them.
This year, Florida scored on every possession during that same game-defining stretch run but there were repeated instances when the Cats were close to getting the stop they needed. Instead, UK bailed them out with a late foul just when the Gators were going to have to take a contested shot at the end of shot clock or UK made the defensive stop only to fail to complete the possession by getting the defensive rebound.
And being mentally tough means not making soft passes when the opponent turns up the defensive pressure. 13 turnovers is not an unusually high number on its face value but in this slower-paced game, it represented 23 percent of Kentucky's possessions.
It's tempting to say that that the die is cast and this team "is what it is." The Kentucky players would be wise to tune out all of that chatter if they want to salvage their season and there's plenty of evidence that it can be done.
In UK history, you can look to Calipari's second team, which lost its sixth SEC game on February 22, when Brandon Knight missed a potential game-winner in a one-point overtime loss at a mediocre Arkansas team. At that time, fans were lamenting Knight's inability to make big shots. In 1998, on February 14, UK lost at home to Ole Miss, one of the two victories for the Rebels in Lexington in their history. The guys on that team will tell you that moment led to a re-dedication of their efforts to buy into their coach's message.
And it's also interesting to check back in on that 1992 Michigan squad, which started five freshmen and ended up playing in the national championship game. On February 15, 1992, that team lost to home by 11 points to 13th-ranked Michigan State. At that point, the Wolverines were 15-6 overall and 6-5 in league play, with a 2-4 record against ranked opponents. They would lose twice more before winning their final three regular season games and five more in the NCAA Tournament.
It is getting late but it doesn't have to be too late.
--listen to Tom each weekday morning at 9:06am eastern on "The Leach Report" radio network--check out tomleachky.com for more of Tom's coverage of the Cats and follow Tom on Twitter @tomleachky and @leachreport + via Facebook for "The Leach Report"