NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky rolled into Sunday’s SEC tournament final with a 24-game winning streak and momentum on its side.
It left with only its second loss of the season and a happy coach.
John Calipari was happy with the loss, you ask?
“I wish this would have happened yesterday so we got a home a day earlier,” Calipari said.
Of Kentucky’s seven-man rotation, six are either freshmen or sophomores.
And by Sunday, you could say the Wildcats weren’t exactly respecting anybody they were playing.
They hadn’t lost since Indiana beat them on a last-second shot on Dec. 11.
Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky 71=64 in the tournament finale, a loss that, moments afterwards, the Wildcats already were saying was a good thing.
“That loss (to Indiana) was a long time ago, it feels like to me anyway,” sophomore forward Terrance Jones said. “And this one just brings us back to reality. Coach feels we were getting … arrogant and just not respecting teams like we were in the beginning.”
He added, “And now that we took a loss, we could probably feel that way again.”
You could see this one coming.
Kentucky allowed a far inferior LSU team to stick with it on Friday in the second round, never leading by more than nine points.
Against Florida a day later, the Wildcats again never led by more than nine and, if not for a huge disparity in free throw attempts, might not have even escaped that game.
They finally gave in Sunday, defeated by a Vanderbilt team with legitimate NBA talent and a chip on its shoulder from underachieving in the regular season.
But again, you’re not going to find many inside the Kentucky locker room overly upset with the loss.
“We get this off our plate,” Calipari said of the loss. ”We don't have to worry about a win streak, none of that. Let's just go play this tournament.”
It might be cliché to say that it’s good for teams on long winning streaks to lose prior to postseason play.
Yet, in this scenario, it’s totally understandable.
Calipari now has his players’ focus. His message is likely to go in one ear and out the other immediately as it’s likely to do when a young team isn’t losing.
Kentucky went the final eight minutes without making a basket, scoring only two points from the free-throw line.
And Vanderbilt took that opportunity and ran with it, scoring on nearly every possession as the game wore down to its final
That gives Kentucky perspective as it prepares to launch itself into a run back to New Orleans for the Final Four.
“I would rather lose this week than next weekend or any weekend after this,” Jones said. “So it’s just a learning experience for us to execute later down the stretch.”
“I definitely hate the feeling of losing,” super freshman Anthony Davis said. “To lose here, especially in the championship when we were this close to winning it all, it just hurts. So I hope we can take this loss, learn from it and have this as motivation going into the tournament.”
Calipari, for one, isn’t worried.
The real season begins next weekend for Kentucky.
“I told the team, I said, ‘Hey, I’m happy. Let’s go,’ ” Calipari said. “We’re a good team. We’ll be fine.”