By LARRY VAUGHT
Perception is not an easy thing to change.
Just look at the Kentucky basketball team and its perceived lack of national respect this season.
The Wildcats dropped out of the national rankings before a win at No. 7 West Virginia got them back into the top 25 at No. 21 this week. However, it was a bit perplexing that North Carolina — a team that had six losses compared to UK’s five including a home loss to Wofford — was ranked ahead of UK. And that was before North Carolina lost at Clemson Tuesday night.
West Virginia, which has lost four of its last five games, also was ranked above UK despite the Cats overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit to beat the Mountaineers.
Kevin Knox had 34 points in the win at West Virginia. The earned him Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors. But again perception likely kept him from being the SEC Player of the Week even though the U.S. Basketball Writers Association gave him its national player of the week honor. Of course, writers are also the same ones who ranked both West Virginia and North Carolina higher than UK this week.
So why the perception problem?
Easy. Just look at Tuesday’s 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt, an eight-win team that deserved to beat Kentucky. Think back to UK having to come from behind to beat Georgia in its SEC opener. Or needing a controversial non-call to secure a home win over Texas A&M.
Kentucky just has not looked overpowering in any win since it 90-61 blowout of Louisville on Dec. 29. Before that UK had narrow wins over Utah Valley, Harvard, Vermont and Troy. Since the Louisville win, UK beat Georgia by 5 points, LSU by 3, Texas A&M by 1, Vanderbilt by 7, Mississippi State by 13, West Virginia by 7 and Vanderbilt by 2. It also lost to Tennessee, South Carolin and Florida since the Louisville win.
Kentucky has been prone to long scoring droughts and way too many defensive breakdowns.
Think about a “dog pile celebration” in Rupp Arena after an overtime win over Vanderbilt, an eight-win team that is 2-7 in SEC play. Sure, it was great to see the emotion the Cats had and the joy they felt for escaping with a win. But celebrating a win over a team with eight wins doesn’t inspire national respect.
“I wasn't surprised. It just shocked me,” freshman guard Quade Green said of the postgame celebration. “I just turned around and saw Johnny [David] running at me then everybody was on me pushing me down to the ground. I was very surprised. PJ [Washington] pushed me down to the ground but the blood was running through my body so I didn't feel it.”
The blood was flowing because he had to know this would have been a disastrous loss — probably the worst loss in coach John Calipari’s tenure at UK. No disrespect to Vanderbilt, but a Kentucky team that thinks it can win the SEC and be a factor in March Madness doesn’t have to get lucky just to beat Vandy at home.
Kentucky plays at Missouri Saturday before coming home to play Tennessee. Then the Cats go to Texas A&M and SEC leader Auburn. Kentucky comes back home to host Alabama, goes to Arkansas and then hosts Missouri and Ole Miss before finishing the season at Florida.
With this Kentucky team, there’s no certain win in that group. Of course, there’s no certain loss either if the Cats play the way they did the second half at West Virginia.
That’s what makes this season so interesting and perplexing at the same time. Who are the Cats? We still don’t know.
Even the players don’t know.
“That's what kind of makes us dangerous, because we got so many weapons that can really score the basketball and really can put the ball in the basket,” Knox said after Tuesday’s win. “Defensively, you don't know what guy is going to have a good night. Tonight it was Shai and last game it was mine.
“Once we come to March and once we can get playing 40 minutes just hard and fighting and defensively and everyone playing the way we should play, we're going to be hard to stop. We just gotta be able to get everybody on page."
If that happens, then Kentucky will get plenty of respect. Until then, the topsy turvy play is going to leave Kentucky open to a lot of second guessing.
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