Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats Needed NIT Title to Salvage Season

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2013

LEXINGTON, KY - MARCH 09:  Archie Goodwin #10 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the game against the  Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on March 9, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Hopes were high at Kentucky when the season began. The Wildcats were coming off a national championship and reloaded with another tremendous recruiting class. They were ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls and were getting votes for No. 1.

At that point, missing the NCAA tournament wasn't even under consideration. The only debate was how deep into the Big Dance the team could go after an offseason overhaul.

So it's a pretty steep drop to get knocked out of the NIT in the opening round, as Kentucky was on Tuesday night by Robert Morris. Even though the contest was on the road, due to a scheduling conflict, it was a winnable game that slipped away after a late comeback attempt.

Still, for most other programs, what the Wildcats accomplished this season would actually be considered a success. They are one of the top teams that didn't make the NCAA tournament, and they earned a top seed in the NIT.

Considering all the talent on the roster and a surge in the second half of the season, which eventually fizzled out, fans elsewhere around the country would already thinking about next season. Instead, Kentucky fans are left thinking about the missed opportunity.

That's an example of the pressure preseason expectations put on a team. Since the Wildcats were expected to contend for another title, coming up well short of that goal makes an above-average season seem like a subpar one.

It's all part of playing at Kentucky. The talented group of freshmen, led by Nerlens Noel, knew that when they made their college choice. The heat would be turned up right away.

Speaking of Noel, it's fair to wonder if things would have been different if he hadn't gotten injured in February. It appeared the team was finally starting to round into form. To lose a terrific post player at that point was a huge blow.

Although an NIT title wouldn't have compared to last year's celebration, it would have at least allowed the program to finish the season on a high note. There are only a couple teams around the nation that get to end their seasons on a winning note.

Even without Noel, the Wildcats had a strong group, including four players scoring in double digits. So they cannot blame the first-round defeat on the fact they were missing a marquee player. They just didn't play up to their potential.

A championship would've given Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Co. something to show for the progress they made throughout the season. Although the development wasn't as quick as some of the players in last year's group, the signs of improvement were definitely there late in the campaign.

But at Kentucky, progress isn't enough unless it shows in the results. That never happened for the Wildcats this season. The team's last chance to save the season, at least to a degree, slipped away on Tuesday.

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