As much as any team I can remember in recent years, Kentucky’s status as a team on the bubble is one of much controversy. Part of that is because Kentucky is, well Kentucky. Fans across the nation either love or (more often) loathe the Cats and the media realizes that talking about the Big Blue ensures eyes on their stories. In one camp are those that think Kentucky will be fine, as it would be utterly impossible for the NCAA to leave out a 20 win UK team from the most high profile event in college basketball. On the other side are those that insist Kentucky is terrible and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the field, more because of how they compare to other UK teams of the past rather than to the other programs on the bubble. My take is actually in the middle. Kentucky could very easily be left out of the field, and it wouldn’t shock me one bit if we have a Selection Sunday without the Big Blue in attendance. But to leave them out, you have to give me 68 teams that can replace them credibly, and that is much easier said than done.
I spent a great deal of time today looking at the bubble, dissecting it and trying to figure where Kentucky stands, and I have come to this conclusion. Kentucky needs to win 2 of its next three games to make the Tournament. The Cats will play at Georgia, home against Florida and then in a first round SEC Tournament game (probably against Arkansas or Tennessee), and they have to find a way to win two of them. If they somehow lose to both Georgia and Florida, there may be another path (it likely involves UK as the #4 or #5 seed in the SEC Tournament and beating Missouri followed by Florida in the Semifinals), but that scenario seems much harder, and frankly unlikely, if the Cats finish on a three game losing streak. The reality is that the Cats most likely path means winning two of three, something that is doable, but by no means certain.
One major factor is working against Kentucky, specifically that UK has beaten almost no one. At this point, Missouri is the only Top 50 win on the schedule, and the wins next in line (Maryland, Tennessee and Ole Miss) are also competitors on the bubble, meaning their rise up the RPI doesn’t necessarily help the Cats. UK is a victim of a nonconference schedule that was actually strong on potential victories, but light on actual wins. Had the Cats beaten Duke, Louisville or Baylor, their position would be much better. But they lost all of them and now are left with a resume that looks weak in Top 50 wins next to virtually all the bubble teams.
Two factors however help the Cats, no real “bad” losses and fewer overall losses than most its competitors. The SEC stinks, but most of the other bubble teams already have double digit losses and will add more. Kentucky’s worst loss is probably the one at home to Texas A&M (and if UK doesn’t make the Tournament, that loss more than any other, will be the reason), but that still isn’t as bad as some of its competitors. Villanova lost to Columbia at home by 20, Indiana State has 7 losses in the Missouri Valley, Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State, Maryland loses to everyone, Tennessee was dreadful early and Lasalle/UMASS have sub 150 RPI losses. Everyone UK has lost to is still in the Top 100 of the RPI. While the Committee favors “who you beat” over “who you lost to”, this factor does matter and could be the tiebreaker for a final spot.
If the Cats can finish the regular season 21-10 (splitting Georgia and Florida) and then wins what will essentially be a “play-in” game in the first round in Nashville, UK should be dancing, probably in the play-in game in Dayton. If they lose both, a #1 seed in the NIT probably beckons, along with a game in Memorial Coliseum. Winning at Georgia and beating Arkansas/Tennessee on a neutral court is not too much to ask for a NCAA Tournament team. It is now up to UK to show they are that team.