This has been a trying season for No. 24 Kentucky, easily the most difficult of Coach Cal’s tenure in Lexington.
If you want to put the the 2013 team into that conversation, you can, but remember: They were in the low-20s on KenPom when they lost the anchor of their defense, Nerlens Noel, to a torn ACL in late February. That season was tough, and it ended with a first round exit in the NIT, but the cause was some bad luck and a poorly-placed basket stanchion in Gainesville.
It’s different for this group.
They’re young, they don’t have a star and they just so happen to have been throw into what may be the toughest SEC that we’ve seen since Tubby Smith was still in Lexington. That was three jobs ago for the current Memphis head coach.
So I get it.
That they struggled, that they’ve taken some lumps in SEC play is anything-but unexpected.
It’s the degree to which they’ve struggled that has surprised people, but it wasn’t until the second half of Kentucky’s 85-74 pounding at Texas A&M that the Wildcats finally looked like their spirit had been broken. After taking a 30-26 lead into the half in College Station, Kentucky was hit with a tidal wave to open the second half. The Aggies went on a 36-9 run, and by the end of it Kentucky looked like they wanted no part of being on the floor.
To their credit, they did make a run towards respectability once the game was no longer in doubt, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Wildcats have now lost three straight. It would have been four straight, but Vanderbilt gave the Wildcats a gift in Rupp Arena, missing free throws down the stretch and committing a foul 70-feet from the rim with two seconds left while up by two. With a 17-8 record and a 6-6 mark in the SEC, the question Kentucky fans keep asking is whether or not this team is heading back to the NIT.
And if the season ended today, they would not be.
Not even close.
Every day, I write a column called Bubble Banter. Every day, I sit here and stare at the NCAA tournament résumés of the teams that are hoping to get a sniff of the NCAA tournament. You want a taste of what that looks like? Let’s go with UCLA, who owns a win over Kentucky. The Bruins are 17-8 on the season with an RPI of 53. They 2-4 against Quadrant 1 opponents with their best wins coming against Kentucky on a neutral and at Arizona, and 3-3 against Quadrant 2 with a loss in a Quadrant 3 game, at Oregon State (174).
They’re also 17-8 on the season and they are now 2-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents, with those wins coming over Texas A&M at home and at West Virginia. But the Wildcats are still a top 20 team in the RPI. They don’t have a loss outside of Quadrant 2, and their three Quadrant 2 losses aren’t exactly embarrassing. UCLA picked them off on a neutral, South Carolina beat them in Columbia and Florida won in Rupp Arena. The UCLA and South Carolina losses could bump up to Quadrant 1 in those two teams win a few more games down the stretch.
Kentucky also has seven wins over Quadrant 2 teams, which is four more than the Bruins. And this three-game losing streak that they’re on? They all came against teams in the top 25 of the RPI, and two of those came on the road. This streak looks much, much worse in real time than it does an an NCAA tournament résumé.
Heading into today, Kentucky was a No. 5 seed in our latest bracket, which was updated on Friday. I can’t imagine a loss at Texas A&M, who is 17th in the RPI, would change that all that much.
That’s not to say that Kentucky is a lock for the dance.
Their stretch run looks like this: at Auburn, Alabama, at Arkansas, Missouri (with Michael Porter Jr.?), Ole Miss, at Florida. Four of those six games are Quadrant 1. Only Ole Miss is Quadrant 3. Adding a bad loss to their profile would not help. If the Wildcats don’t right this ship, going 2-4 or 1-5 down the stretch is certainly a possibility. That would be bad, too.
Put another way, Kentucky needs to figure this mess out. And fast.
But it’s not because they are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament at this moment.
It’s because falling out of the dance from where they are on February 10th would be quite an achievement, and quite the embarrassment.