Whether Kentucky is a threat to win the national title is no longer the most pertinent question about this year’s Wildcats.
Now it’s fair to wonder if they’ll reach the NCAA tournament at all.
Kentucky endured chants of NIT, NIT in the final seconds of its 76-66 loss at 10th-ranked Auburn on Wednesday night. The Wildcats led the Tigers by four after the second-to-last TV timeout, but they crumbled late, falling for the fourth consecutive time to sink below .500 in the SEC for the first time this season.
At 17-9 overall and 6-7 in the SEC, Kentucky would still comfortably make the NCAA tournament if the regular season ended today. The Wildcats project as a No. 7 or 8 seed thanks to a stack of marquee wins that compares favorably against bubble teams.
Kentucky boasts a pair of quadrant 1 victories against West Virginia and Texas A&M and a couple notable quadrant 2 wins against Louisville and Virginia Tech. Also boosting the Wildcats’ hopes is their dearth of losses against sub-100 RPI opponents.
Compare Kentucky’s resume to teams right on the bubble, and it’s easy to see why the Wildcats have a little wiggle room left. Few bubble teams can match Kentucky’s most impressive victories, nor have they so adeptly avoided bad losses.
KENTUCKY (17-9, 6-7) (RPI 20, KenPom 34) (Record vs. Quadrant 1: 2-6) (Record vs. Quadrant 2: 7-3) (Marquee wins: at West Virginia, Texas A&M, Louisville, Virginia Tech) (Worst losses: at South Carolina, UCLA)
ST. BONAVENTURE (19-6, 9-4) (RPI 42, KenPom 68) (Record vs. Quadrant 1: 3-2) (Record vs. Quadrant 2: 3-2) (Marquee wins: at Syracuse, Buffalo, Vermont, Maryland) (Worst losses: Niagara, at Saint Joseph’s)
USC (17-9, 8-5) (RPI 49, KenPom 47) (Record vs. Quadrant 1: 2-5) (Record vs. Quadrant 2: 4-3) (Marquee wins: Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, Utah) (Worst losses: Princeton, at Stanford)
KANSAS STATE (17-8, 6-6) (RPI 67, KenPom 55) (Record vs. Quadrant 1: 4-6) (Record vs. Quadrant 2: 2-1) (Marquee wins: Oklahoma, TCU, at Baylor, at Texas) (Worst losses: Tulsa)
What should keep Kentucky from feeling wholly comfortable is that Selection Sunday is still more than three weeks away. That means there’s still time for the Wildcats to further mess this season up and fade to the fringes of the NCAA tournament picture.
Kentucky still has five regular season games remaining, four of which are against contenders for NCAA bids. Up next for the Wildcats is a home game against talented but enigmatic Alabama, followed by visits to Arkansas and Florida sandwiched around home games against Missouri and Mississippi.
Three wins in five games would send Kentucky to the NCAA tournament no matter what happens in the SEC tournament. Two wins in five games would be a little dicier. One or fewer wins, and the Wildcats can start making plans for the NIT.
That Kentucky is fighting for its NCAA tournament life in mid-February is equal parts predictable and shocking.
It’s predictable because Kentucky lost six of its seven leading scorers from last year’s Elite Eight team and replaced them entirely with freshmen. It’s shocking because we’ve seen Kentucky withstand similar roster turnover in years past under John Calipari and still remain among the nation’s elite.
This year’s Kentucky team does not live up to the standard of previous squads during the Calipari era. The Wildcats shoot poorly from the perimeter, turn the ball over too often and don’t share it willingly. They also don’t have surefire future lottery-pick talent the way Calipari teams typically have.
Only once during the Calipari era has Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament. The 2012-13 team nosedived after Nerlens Noel tore his ACL and crashed out of the NIT in the opening round against Robert Morris.
There’s still time for this year’s Kentucky team to avoid a similar fate, but the Wildcats need to string together a few wins. Otherwise the mocking chant from Auburn fans on Wednesday night may prove prophetic instead of merely just petty.
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