John Calipari and the defending NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats will have… (Andy Lyons / Getty Images )
Coming off of two consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances -- including a national championship last year -- Kentucky finds itself in a different position this postseason.
Actually, it finds itself in a different tournament -- the NIT. But if it's any consolation to the Wildcats, they are a top seed in college basketball's second-tier postseason tournament.
“I’m really disappointed we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, but we are going to use this time to make us better," said fourth-year Coach John Calipari, whose team started the season with lofty expectations but ended with a 21-11 record.
"We had our chances, but I’m not going to stop. It’s a great lesson for the future of our program and a humbling experience for me as a coach. ... Even now, I’m going to coach these guys, try to make them better and give everything I can to make sure we control our destiny in the future.”
The Wildcats play at eighth-seeded Robert Morris (23-10) on Tuesday because their home arena is hosting Midwest Regional NCAA tournament games.
Fellow SEC members Alabama and Tennessee also had to settle for NIT bids, making this the first time in 39 years that the three schools missed the big dance in the same season. The Crimson Tide got a No. 1 seed in the NIT, while the Volunteers are a No. 2.
“We felt like we needed to play our way in and we weren't fortunate enough to do that," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, whose 21-12 team will play Northeastern (20-12) on Tuesday.. We're thankful to have a chance to participate in the postseason.”
Southern Mississippi Coach Donnie Tyndall sounded slightly less diplomatic when reacting to his team's No. 1 seed in the NIT. But he still tried to emphasize the prospects for his Golden Eagles (25-9), who lost in double overtime to Memphis in the Conference USA title game and now will host Charleston Southern (19-12) on Wednesday.
“We believe we should have been in the NCAA tournament, especially when you see some of the other teams that got in,” Tyndall said. “But there's still opportunity for us and I believe we'll bounce back.”
Of course, it's tough to have to settle for anything less than a shot at the national title. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett, whose Cavaliers are the final No. 1 seed in the NIT, had his players prepared for anything as they awaited the NCAA tournament announcement.
"I told our guys if we have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, we'll be thankful for that," said Bennett, whose 21-11 team Norfolk State (21-11) on Tuesday. "If not, I said, then be very thankful to play in the NIT, and let's be the best NIT team we can be."
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