Posted: 2:16 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, 2013
By Alex Scutchfield
Saturday's loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks was like quite a letdown for the BBN. Joe Lunardi, bracketologist extraordinaire with the WorldWide Leader has moved the Cats from "Last Four In" to "First Four Out", behind Tennessee, who he now has as literally the last team in the tournament.
We'll now be watching the bubble with baited breath over the next two weeks. Whether you agree with me or not, I think it is kinda fun. Kentucky basketball hasn't had the season we've wanted in 2012-13, but take a minute to put that in perspective (and yes, I just used perspective and Kentucky basketball in the same sentence).
We are one year removed from a National Championship, and a few months away from welcoming one of the best recruiting classes ever in college basketball. The Cats have lost their best player (with whom they weren't playing all that well anyway) for the season. Making the tournament or not making it isn't life or death. If this team does qualify, what are the chances it makes a serious run, especially without Nerlens Noel? Either way, this season promises to be the low water mark of the Coach Cal era at Kentucky. I say, let's appreciate these last couple of weeks for what they are, and get excited to root our team on to reach their goals, albeit not the goals we were expecting when the season started. Let the chips fall where they may.
Granted, we all desperately want to see the Cats in the tournament. Despite my love affair with college football, I'll concede that March Madness is the best three weeks in sports. When Kentucky doesn't make the field (I'm looking at you Billy Clyde), it puts a damper on everything right down to your office pool. Remember how much of an idiot you felt like filling out your sad sack NIT bracket in 2009? Nobody wants that.
So what gets us from here to there? Kentucky first needs to overcome the scheduling gods. In cruel twist, the Cats play in Athens on Thursday night at 7 then must turn around 41 hours later and take on the #11 Florida Gators back in Lexington. Thursday-Saturday games have not been kind to Coach Cal's crew this year. Both home losses, against Baylor and Texas A&M;, came on Saturdays after Thursday road games. Without those two bedwetting incidents, we probably aren't having this conversation to begin. So, not good.
With that said, a sweep of those two games will likely put the Cats in the tournament, regardless of what happens in Nashville. The biggest knock on UK right now is a lack of wins over quality competition. Florida would be far and away Kentucky's best win, and two victories would leave the Cats at 13-5, in no worse than a tie for the second best record in the SEC. Two wins should also improve computer rankings to the point where Cal and Co. would be hard to leave out.
In the more likely event Kentucky splits the games, things get a little more dicey. Style points might come into play. Just losing an SEC road game or at home to Florida might not be a deal breaker, but another collapse like the Arkansas or, god forbid, Tennessee games could derail the train. Generally speaking, if Kentucky splits this week, I think we'll need a deep SEC tourney run with a pair of wins against other bubble teams and no upset losses. In other words, Kentucky could survive being knocked out by Missouri or Florida, but Losing in the finals to another team looking to get in would make for a very close call at the end.
While we're here, it pays to note that nearly half of the SEC now sits on one side or the other of the tournament bubble. Of Lunardi's 12 teams either in the last 4 in our first 8 out, five-Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Arkansas-are from our conference. For reasons I'm not real clear on, Missouri is considered safely in the field, though I'd almost consider the Tigers in the same breath.
Finally, it goes without saying that the Cats' most sure-fire way of reaching the field is to win the SEC Tournament outright. Even in a down year, Kentucky is sure to have the most fans in Nashville, which should create a comfortable environment. Other than Florida, there is no team that is necessarily better on a quasi-neutral floor. Kentucky might not be favored against Missouri, or based on recent results, Tennessee. But just about any match-up is a plausible win. Kentucky's biggest problem as an SEC Tourney team is a lack of depth.
If the tournament started tomorrow, Kentucky would be the #3 seed. Though this would be a good draw in some sense-they would not play until Friday and couldn't face Florida before the final- it would also be brutal from a timing standpoint. The #3 seed will play at 10pm Friday night, and assuming a win, would return to the court at 3:30pm the next day for a semi. The finals are at Sunday at 1, meaning that a team will have to win 3 games in 39 hours to take the tournament from the three hole. That's a lot to ask from a team with only 8 serviceable players, one of whom has only recently had valuable minutes.
So, there you have it. Of course, a lot can happen over a couple of weeks. Surely some bubble teams will lose games they shouldn't and there is always a chance a team in a smaller conference will steal a bid and the bubble will shrink. Good luck to our Cats.
Follow me on Twitter @AlexScutchfield