Kentucky falls out of SEC title race with home loss to Tennessee

Over the years, Kentucky coach John Calipari has explained that one of the reasons he doesn’t worry about fielding a young team is because, come the latter part of the season, inexperience shouldn’t be an issue.

When the lack-of-experience card no longer plays is an undefined threshold, but Calipari seemed to indicate that it came Dec. 29, when Kentucky beat rival Louisville 90-61.

“I’m not saying it anymore. We’re not freshmen now,” he said after that game. “We’re 10 games in, 11 games in. We are not freshmen. And the other thing I said, ‘We’ve got to start smashing people.’”

It could have been one of those here-we-go-again moments for the Wildcats, a potential precursor to another run to the Final Four. It would take blind optimism to feel the same way now.

In a 61-59 loss at home Tuesday against No. 15 Tennessee, the 24th-ranked Wildcats had a two-point lead and the ball headed into the final minute but were undone by a pair of turnovers. The sloppy finish dropped Kentucky to 6-5 in SEC play, three-and-a-half games behind conference-leading Auburn. In a fourth-place tie with Mississippi State and Alabama, Kentucky appears to be an afterthought in the regular-season title race.

If the blueprint is for Calipari’s teams to improve at a more significant rate than the rest of the country, the Wildcats have certainly failed.

The Wildcats have lost four of seven and haven’t approached the level they showed against Louisville once in conference play. Their 83-76 win at then-No. 7 West Virginia on Jan. 27 is noteworthy, but it also came during a stretch in which the Mountaineers lost five of six.

Still, even though Kentucky doesn’t have the résumé or the momentum of a team deserving March buzz, it’s hard to write the Wildcats off all together. The last time Kentucky had a stretch in which it dropped four of seven came at the close of the 2013-14 regular season. The Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament with 10 losses and managed to figure it out in time to make a run to the championship game.

Can this team do the same?

It seems unlikely. These Wildcats, at 17-7, feel more similar to the 2012-13 squad that started 17-7 but missed the NCAA tournament and was bounced from the NIT in the first round.

Maybe Kentucky isn't to the point where qualifying for the tournament is a real concern, but there are reasonable scenarios in which the Wildcats could be left out. That, on its own this late in the season, qualifies as a massive disappointment.