While it might be a little too early to say that Kentucky basketball has turned a corner, it does appear that the young Wildcats are finally learning how to win close games. After playing just about everyone tough early in the season – Kansas, Louisville, Alabama (the second time), Missouri – the Wildcats are turning what were once close losses into close wins.
It also has just about everyone wondering, if Kentucky can keep this momentum going into the SEC Tournament, can they actually do what was once considered inconceivable and win the whole thing? Considering that they led first place Alabama late on the road, were a questionable call away from beating second place Arkansas and did beat third place LSU already, the answer seems like an absolute “yes.”
Of course to win it all in Nashville, there would be one thing that could help the process: Getting a double-bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. What is generally an annual tradition for the Wildcats seemed very unlikely as recently as a week ago, but now seems to be in play going forward.
Still, as crazy as it sounds, it can be done for Kentucky.
Yes, this season.
No, I’m not kidding.
The Wildcats currently sit at 6-7 overall in SEC play, and it’s worth noting that in each of the last two seasons, at least one team with seven or more SEC losses has gotten the double-bye. Interestingly, the most recent SEC Tournament winner (Auburn in 2019) entered the event with an 11-7 league record.
So yes, Kentucky has a chance. They’re currently eighth in the standings with four games left and would have to pass four teams in the standings to do it. But it is possible.
As the old saying goes, “So you’re saying telling me there’s a chance” Kentucky can get that double-bye in Nashville? The answer is “absolutely.”
Here is how it happens.
First, let’s look at the current SEC standings:
With no games scheduled until Saturday, here is how they currently look:
Team SEC Record Games Back Overall Record
Alabama 12-1 –
Arkansas 9-4 3 17-5
LSU 8-4 3.5 13-6
Tennessee 8-5 4 15-5
Florida 6-5 5 10-6
Ole Miss 7-6 5 12-8
Missouri 6-6 5.5 13-6
Kentucky 6-7 6 7-13
Georgia 6-8 6.5 13-8
Auburn 5-8 7 11-11
Mississippi State 5-8 7 11-11
South Carolina 3-8 8 5-10
Texas A&M 2-6 7.5 8-7
Vanderbilt 2-9 9 6 -11
First off, forgive me for my terrible graphic design work here. This was a literal copy and paste job, and I know the columns are uneven. I did my best. Unfortunately, I’m a content guy. Not Picasso. As you can clearly tell.
Anyway, let’s focus on the content, and what you can see here is, that the Wildcats are smack dab in the middle of the standings, in eighth place overall. In many ways, there is a lot of ground to make up, as the Wildcats would have to move past four teams into the top four and get that double-bye.
Of course, if you look closely, in some ways, they actually aren’t all that far away from cracking that top four, as they sit just two games back of fourth place Tennessee, and within one game of three teams in front of them.
So for the sake of the “moving up the rankings exercise” let’s go ahead and eliminate Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. The Tide have already (if my math is correct) clinched a spot in the double-bye. And with Kentucky sitting three and 3.5 games behind Arkansas and LSU with four games to go, it doesn’t seem conceivable they can pass them.
Again, let’s focus on those middle four teams: Tennessee, Florida, Ole Miss and Missouri and see what has to happen for Kentucky to pass them.
Let’s focus on Kentucky first:
Remember back when you were a kid, and one of your friends had a new bike, or shoes, or whatever, you’d whine and complain to your parents and they’d tell you “Don’t worry about what little Johnny has. Be grateful for what you have.” Well, that’s kind of the position Kentucky is in now.
Before we can worry about the four teams the Wildcats need to pass, they need to focus on themselves.
Overall, Kentucky has four games left in the regular season, and if they don’t win all four they can all but forget about that double-bye. The final four are at Tennessee, Texas A&M, Florida and at Ole Miss, and again, they need to win all four to make a serious run at that top four spot.
Ironically, the toughest game left on the schedule is the next one, at Tennessee, but it isn’t inconceivable the Wildcats pull off the win. Remember, it was just a few weeks ago that Kentucky was up 12 points late against the Vols before eventually losing. The Vols are solid, but have been up-and-down all year, with some solid wins, but also some bizarre losses (at Ole Miss, getting smoked by LSU last weekend).
The other three games definitely feel winnable. Texas A&M might just be the worst team in the SEC (it’s hard to tell if they’re worse than Vanderbilt, since they haven’t played in weeks). Florida is really solid, but the Wildcats crushed the Gators in Gainesville. Then there is Ole Miss, which has quietly won four games in a row heading into the weekend.
Speaking of Ole Miss, that leads to the next step in getting the double-bye to the SEC Tournament.
Beat Ole Miss!
Of the four teams ahead of Kentucky, the path past Ole Miss up the standings is the easiest one to follow. If Kentucky wins all four of their remaining games, that would include a win over Ole Miss. Even if the Rebels win their other three games, they would be tied in the standings with the Wildcats at 10-7 and Kentucky would have a head-to-head tiebreaker.
So, simply by winning the rest of its games, Kentucky would move past one team (Ole Miss) in the standings.
Hope the SEC makes up missed games
Beyond just the standings themselves, something interesting to consider is this: What are the SEC’s plans for the final weekend of the regular season? I feel like I might have been the only one to notice this, but regular season games end less than two weeks from now on Wednesday, March 3rd. With the SEC Tournament not starting until a full week later on Wednesday, March 10th, it would allow for make-up games to happen on the final weekend of the season (essentially, Saturday, March 6th).
John Calipari even admitted on Friday that he isn’t sure what the league’s plans are, and it’s worth noting that some teams simply can’t make up all their games at this point. For example, Texas A&M has played just eight SEC games, compared to the 13 Kentucky has played.
At the same time, if games are made up, it could work out in the Wildcats favor in two ways. One, it’s an extra chance for them to pick up an extra win, assuming the league would pit them against South Carolina (the only game postponed on the Wildcats schedule).
It might also allow for other teams to pick up losses. For example, Florida had multiple games postponed this season, including matchups with Tennessee and LSU. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Kentucky for at least one of those games to get played, and for one of the teams above them in the standings to pick up another loss. Speaking of LSU, they also had a game against Missouri postponed. With the way Missouri has played of late (we’ll get to them in a second), Kentucky would probably love to see them face Will Wade’s Tigers and pick up another potential loss.
Point being, if games get added to the schedule on that final week, it will be advantage Kentucky.
Now back to the other teams in the standings…
Next up is Missouri
Alright, we’ve already explained how Kentucky can pass Ole Miss in the standings. But what about another team directly in front of them, Missouri, which sits at just 6-6 overall in league play? This one is a bit more complicated.
On the plus side, Mizzou has been awful of late, losing three straight games. While an overtime home loss to Arkansas is excusable, what isn’t is ones that became before and after it. There was a road loss to Ole Miss which doesn’t look quite as bad now as it did a few weeks ago, but on Tuesday, we got the inexcusable loss of all inexcusable losses – at Georgia. You simply can’t lose to Tom Crean if you think you’re angling for good NCAA Tournament seeding.
Still, despite Kentucky sitting just a game behind Missouri in the standings, Missouri actually needs to lose twice, since the Tigers own a head-to-head win against the Wildcats.
With games against at South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and at Florida, it’s definitely possible – with games at Florida and Ole Miss looking like probable losses.
Still, the best thing for Kentucky would be if the SEC did decide to add make-up games to the back-end of the schedule.
Put simply, if Missouri had to play LSU, in addition to those other four games, I can’t see them going 4-1 to get the No. 4 seed.
How about Florida
Poor Florida can’t catch a break this season. First there was the horrifying Keyontae Johnson situation (and thankfully it appears as though he’ll be OK). Then a cancellation of some out of conference games because of it. And in addition to a Covid-19 shutdown leading into the season, they just came off of one on Tuesday where they lost to Arkansas.
In total, the Gators have played just 11 SEC games, with four games to go on the league slate: Georgia, at Auburn, at Kentucky and Missouri at home.
Sitting two losses behind the Gators in the loss column, this one is pretty straightforward for Kentucky. One, we’re assuming the Wildcats win the rest of their games, which would add one more loss for the Gators. Then you have to hope Florida loses once more after that. Considering they have some tough games left, and more importantly, that the SEC will most likely want them to make up at least one more game, it feels like another loss could be coming.
And should Florida end up tied in the loss column with Kentucky, it would be advantage Wildcats, since in this scenario Kentucky would have two head-to-head wins over the Gators.
Kentucky needs to beat Florida, and hope the SEC adds an extra game to their schedule.
Finally, there’s Tennessee
Ok, so we’ve laid out all the scenarios where Kentucky could pass Ole Miss, Missouri and Florida. Tennessee unfortunately is a bit more complicated. Not only are the Vols two games ahead in the loss column, but they already own a head-to-head win over the Wildcats. They also only have three games left on the schedule, playing at Vanderbilt and at Auburn, following Kentucky’s trip to Knoxville this weekend.
So first and foremost, Kentucky has to take care of business Saturday. Then they have to hope that the SEC adds another game on the Vols schedule for the final Saturday of the season. Most likely it would be against Florida, a team that the Vols have already lost to. Considering the up-and-down nature of how Tennessee has basically played all year, it doesn’t seem inconceivable to me that they could lose one of three, at Auburn, at Vanderbilt or against Florida at home.
But even at that point, Kentucky would be tied with Tennessee in the loss column and the two would have split head-to-head meetings.
(There is the scenario where Tennessee loses three games down the stretch, but I don’t see that happening)
Assuming Tennessee picks up another loss somewhere and is tied with Kentucky in the loss column, then it would go to SEC tiebreak rules to determine who would get the No. 4 seed.
Here is the full list. But for people who don’t want to click, let me break them down:
The first tiebreak is head-to-head matchups, which in this case would be a split. So we can cross that off the list.
The second is how the two teams played against the first place team in the SEC. Well, the two went a combined 0-3 against Alabama. So that’s a wash.
Then, they would go to how the two teams played against the second best team.
Well, that’s where it gets interesting. Right now, Arkansas is currently in second place and LSU is in third place. Tennessee has a win over Arkansas and a loss to LSU. Kentucky has a win over LSU and a loss to Arkansas.
So basically, to get the No. 4 seed, Kentucky needs LSU to finish second in the league standings and Tennessee needs Arkansas to finish in that spot.
Did I mention Arkansas hosts LSU next Saturday at Bud Walton Arena?
Among the million things that determine whether Kentucky gets a double-bye at the SEC Tournament, an LSU-Arkansas game might help determine it.
That’s right, Kentucky needs to win all its game, and then, if a million other scenarios play out, gulp, maybe root for Will Wade.
In a bizarre season, that might be the most bizarre twist of all.
Of course there is a lot of work to be done for Kentucky between now and then.