Wildcats Know Season is On the Line Against Florida
This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is brought to you by Republic Bank.
UPDATE: Kentucky wins 61-57 over Florida. New story to follow.
Senior guard Julius Mays transferred to UK for the chance to win a national championship.
Now with one regular season game left in his only season as a Wildcat, his team is fighting to even make the NCAA Tournament.
“This game is do or die for us,” Mays said. “It’s a must-win for us — unless we win the whole conference tournament. I just hope the guys’ minds are ready. Everything that’s come upon us before this is behind us, and we’re coming in with free minds and just ready to play like we did when we played Missouri.”
That win versus Missouri — a 90-83 overtime victory on Feb. 23 — is one of the few positives on the Cats’ NCAA Tournament resume. The team’s game versus No. 11 Florida on Saturday is their last chance to boost that resume, which is on life support after a loss at Georgia Thursday.
The Cats have dropped two consecutive games after appearing to right the ship without star freshman Nerlens Noel in a three-game home winning streak.
“This is a one-game season,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “We’ll talk about it today. That’s what it is: a one-game season. Now are you going to fight like heck, play through the ups and downs of a game, or are you gonna die? I can’t put it any more plainly or bluntly.”
Saturday’s game will not be the first time the Cats have played with their backs against the wall this season, it’s just the most extreme example. While they have failed several of those previous tests to get to this point, Calipari still thinks there is a chance for a sudden turnaround.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Uh oh. If I go under one more time I’m gonna drown. I better start swimming,”" he said. “Then all the sudden you start swimming. The car’s laying on you, it’s on your leg, you gotta lift a 3,000 pound car. It’s funny how you figure out how to lift it to get it off you leg so you don’t die.”
While the rest of the roster theoretically has the chance to return for another try at winning a championship — although at least a few will likely declare for the NBA draft — the coming week represents the last chance to even attempt that goal for seniors Mays and injured guard Twany Beckham.
Mays is averaging 9.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in his only season as a Wildcat.
The Wright State transfer helped the Cats thrive in a three-game homestand following the 30-point loss to Tennessee by averaging 14.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, but his play has performance has trended downward with the Cats’ recent slide. He scored just three points in losses to Arkansas and Georgia, making one of 12 field goal attempts.
“They’ve kind of taken him away,” Calipari said of Mays. “I’m not worried about Julius either. They’re gonna guard him. If we play the way we should against pressure and all the other stuff, he’ll get shots, and I have confidence that he’ll make some. We need him to score to be as good as we can be.”
Beckham has appeared in 18 games since transferring from Mississippi State as a junior. He has scored two points in his UK career, but he has been unable to play for most of the season due to a back injury.
“You can’t stop injuries,” Beckham, who will not play Saturday due to the injury, said. “I’ve loved every second of it.”
Neither Mays or Beckham spent their entire collegiate careers as UK. Still, Calipari is not worried about the luster being taken away from senior night by the lack of four-year players.
“We’ve had a lot of guys leave, and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “If you told me, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to take away the national title and have players that weren’t so good and have them all come back?’ No. I’m good. I’m good where we are.”
If the stakes for Saturday weren’t big enough, Calipari seemed to suggest it would have a greater impact on some of his players who are not graduating this year.
“We need to keep the eye on this program, the far-reaching parts of it, not just tomorrow’s game,” he said. “Where is this going? Who can be a part of it? Who can’t? When this kind of game comes, this is what playing at Kentucky is about.
“You’re at home. You’re going to have 25,000 crazy fans with you. Go ball. You’re not holding anything back.”
With that in mind, Mays plans on making sure all his teammates are willing to help make sure his career doesn’t end earlier than he plans.
“This is it, definitely, for me,” he said. “If these guys decide to come back, they’ve got the eligibility to come back. I’m done. So they can hate me fore the rest of their life, but I’m leaving it all out there tomorrow.”
SEE ALSO: Coach Cal took to Twitter Friday night with a special request from the fans at Rupp Arena. He tweeted:
We need everything you have on Sat at Rupp to help pull us across the finish line. I have a challenge for the
#BBN for tomorrow's game. At the 8-min timeout in the 2nd half, let's commit to standing up and cheering until the final horn. It won't be easy but we need you!Let's get Rupp rockin like its never been before and pull this team through to the finish line. Let's fight together!
Photo: Julius Mays/Jon Hale of KY Forward