By now we are all familiar with the many phrases coined by John Calipari. If he’s not talking about being every team’s Super Bowl, then he’s talking about ice cream (the real kind…the Orange Leaf kind). If he’s not talking about the real kind of ice cream, he’s talking about the
creepy kind metaphorical kind. And if he’s not talking about metaphorical ice cream, then he’s talking about how much he likes his team. Let’s retrace back to one of his favorites though, the idea that playing Kentucky is every team’s “Super Bowl.” Regardless of who the team is, or how good the team is, or how well they have been playing so far during the season… in Calipari’s terms, Kentucky is always going to likely see the best version of that team. Kentucky is the marquee game on almost every team’s schedule, especially in the SEC where Kentucky has been dominant for decades upon decades. Even without a top-25 ranking attached to this year’s team, Kentucky is still the defending national champions and they are still considered a “big game.” I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Kentucky is every team’s Super Bowl.
The tide has turned slightly though. Based on the season’s results thus far, every game is also now Kentucky’s Super Bowl.
I know, I know…”every game always matters, not just this season.” But the implications moving forward for Kentucky have set up a situation similar to a tournament-like level of importance for each game remaining on their schedule. Last year Kentucky probably could have dropped another game or two and still held on to a number one seed. In year’s past, a loss here or a loss there might have been the difference between being bumped up or down one seed, though still safely in the field. By most predictions at this point in time, Kentucky is narrowly included in the NCAA tournament field. Kentucky does not have to “win out” by any means, but each game is crucial in how the rest of the path sets up for Kentucky.
The margin for error and importance of each remaining game is huge for a number of reasons…
1) Kentucky needs to avoid bad losses, especially at home
Example: LSU at home, South Carolina at home, Auburn at home, Vanderbilt at home, Mississippi State at home,
Kentucky really can’t afford any bad losses at home. They have 5 games against teams other than Florida and Missouri in Lexington, and simply must avoid dropping any of those games. Texas A&M was their one bad loss at home, and unfortunately it came early– leaving little room for error in the remainder of the home schedule. Every home game, even against marginal competition, now matters.
2) Kentucky needs quality wins
Example: @ Alabama, @ Ole Miss, @ Florida, Missouri at home, Florida at home
The five losses Kentucky has hanging on their record this year really aren’t the problem in my opinion. Two came against top 5 teams in America. Notre Dame was on the road, and they were a veteran team who is probably a top-25 or very close to being a top-25 team week in and week out. Baylor wasn’t a great loss, especially at home. But for a young team early in the season, it wasn’t the end of the world. The Texas A&M loss hurt, but again isn’t a NCAA tournament selection committee killer. What hurts Kentucky more than the five losses is the lack of quality wins. In theory, Kentucky’s best win of the season so far is against Maryland (and Maryland isn’t even a certainty to make the tournament).
The way the SEC stacks up this year, the opportunities for quality wins are few and far between. Kentucky has 5 good opportunities to add quality wins to their resume’. The rest of the wins in the SEC will be games they should win– not wins that boost their status. Kentucky’s first big opportunity comes tonight against Alabama on the road. Alabama is not a tournament team…yet. Joe Lunardi feels like a win over Kentucky and a win against Tennessee could propel Alabama into being at least a team on the fringe of making the tournament. Ole Miss, Florida and Missouri are all top-25 teams. A split with a VERY good Florida team would be huge for Kentucky. Each of these games, even the ones on the road, are hugely important for Kentucky. If Kentucky takes care of business in these 5 games, they could sneak their way into a solid seed in the NCAA tournament with a strong showing in the SEC tournament as well. These 5 games are key not just for making the tournament, but for any chance to move up from a difficult seed (for example, a 10 seed like Kentucky is projected at the moment).
3. Kentucky needs to win MOST of the road games against lesser competition as well
Example: @ Texas A&M, @ Tennessee, @ Arkansas, @ Georgia
All of these are winnable games for Kentucky. Kentucky has more talent than these 4 teams. Tonight’s game against Alabama will likely determine how much room for error Kentucky will have in these 4 games. If Kentucky can win tonight at Alabama, I think they can afford to drop 1 or 2 of these 4 games and still be alright. If Kentucky loses tonight at Alabama, these potential losses on the road to sub-par teams become more detrimental.
4. Kentucky would do well to stay out of double digits in losses on the season
However you want to carve up the wins and losses, road games vs. home games, quality competition vs. lesser competition… Kentucky would do well to keep the overall number of losses on the season in single digits. Even if all of Kentucky’s remaining losses come from the teams listed under #2 in this post, a 10-loss team is at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee and it would be easier to justify leaving Kentucky out of the picture.
5. For confidence reasons, each game is a chance for Kentucky to simply keep improving
Forget the numbers. Forget the competition. Forget the seeding, the bubble-talk and the home vs. road games. I think any fan, coach, media member or player on Kentucky’s team would tell you that this team has yet to fulfill it’s potential. It’s still January, so that’s to be expected. But this Kentucky team maybe more so than wins and losses, just needs to keep improving and taking steps forward. Saturday’s win on the road against Auburn was a step forward. Individually and as a team, they moved in the right direction. For this reason, every game on the schedule is important because many strides are still left to be made. And they need every game to keep making these strides.
Of course this is all a matter of predicting outcomes at this point. Teams like Virginia Tech will tell you that there is no exact formula or science to making the field, or knowing the exact seeding until the moment comes. Each game on Kentucky’s schedule is important though. Each game either effects Kentucky’s chances of making the field, or effects their ability to climb to a better position than a 10-seed. In other years, a few games here and there wouldn’t do much to necessarily have a huge impact on Kentucky’s tournament status. I do think that it’s safe to say that while Kentucky is every team’s Super Bowl year in and year out…at least for the rest of this season, every team and every game is also of great importance to Kentucky.
Is every game now Kentucky’s Super Bowl? I have trouble naming a game on the schedule that for one reason or another, doesn’t really matter.