LEXINGTON — With nearly 65 percent of the regular season already over, there is no question that Kentucky has a good team. But how far will UK go in March and April?
The 11th-ranked Wildcats — who saw their record drop to 15-5 after Tuesday night’s disappointing 87-82 loss to LSU — certainly have a reasonable chance to be special. But it obviously won’t be as special as UK’s 2012 national championship club led by Anthony Davis.
If you remember, those memorable Cats entered the 2012 tourney as the No. 1 overall seed and ended up finishing with a stunning 38-2 mark. The current Kentucky team, however, still can be pretty special by making history with a Final Four trip.
With 11 SEC regular season games remaining — including two very tough games against third-ranked Florida — as well as the SEC tournament, the Wildcats don’t have a lot of room left for youthful mistakes as they have already posted five setbacks.
As of right now, Kentucky — which has both the tallest and least experienced team in the nation — is likely a No. 4-seed in the Big Dance after its Tuesday night loss in icy Baton Rouge. UK’s tough schedule should keep its seeding fairly high on Selection Sunday (March 16) when the tournament pairings are announced.
No. 4 isn’t bad, but the Cats can maintain or boost their seeding by playing up to their potential and continuing to improve in the next several weeks.
If UK wants a better seeding, it really can’t afford more than two losses in February and early March.
For instance, the four No. 1 seed teams in the 2013 NCAA tournament had posted records of 31-2, 29-5, 29-5 and 27-6. As for the No. 2 seeds, the records were 27-5, 27-6, 25-6 and 26-7.
Before this past Tuesday night’s game, Kentucky was No. 12 according to the official NCAA RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), which was last updated on Monday. But the updated RPI (as of Wednesday) in CBSSports.com and ESPN.com both now have UK at No. 17.
As you know, RPI is one of the tools used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to select the schools and organize the
68-team tournament field.
As mentioned earlier, Kentucky’s SOS (strength of schedule) component in RPI is very strong and will definitely help its seeding in the tourney. CBSSports.com had the Wildcats at No. 5 in SOS, while ESPN.com placed UK at No. 6.
In addition, all of Kentucky’s five losses have been very close (no more than five points), including a 78-74 setback to Michigan State, which is currently No. 7 in this week’s AP poll. Louisville, so far, is the highest-rated team that Kentucky has beaten. The Cardinals are ranked No. 12 in this week’s AP poll and No. 29 in NCAA’s RPI.
In defeating Georgia 79-54 last Saturday, the talented Wildcats began to show some signs of playing well as a squad even though the Bulldogs were missing a couple of their key performers.
“It comes with playing together,” said UK freshman star James Young moments after hitting 13 points, including three 3-pointers against the Bulldogs. “We also communicate a lot more. We are getting better than when we first started.
“We usually give a lot of baseline drives and let the guy drive right past us, but we are getting better. It’s a process and we are just taking it day by day. Every day we are communicating on how we can get better as a team. To be where we want to be, it is going to take time.”
Freshman superstar Julius Randle said the team is beginning to enjoy practicing basketball.
“Anything you do is going to be a grind, but I think the biggest thing is we learn to enjoy and love the grind, and love the process,” Randle told a group of reporters on Monday. “It just makes things a lot easier. We’ve fallen in love with the whole process of getting better and changing habits, and because of that, it’s been smooth for us.”
Said coach John Calipari, “I think that they all are (enjoying the grind of practice)….We are slowly but surely getting better.”
In addition, the Wildcats have begun to hit their free throws in recent games. In the last three home contests, they have made 57 of 71 shots from the line for 80.3 percent. Against LSU, the Cats weren’t bad, either, hitting nine of 13 free throws for 69.2 percent.
If they can hit free throws, the Cats will be an extra dangerous force down the road.
In two of its five losses, UK hit only 55.6 and 52.2 percent of their free throws against Michigan State and Baylor, respectively. Had Kentucky made most of its charity shots, it would’ve won these key non-conference matchups.
Nevertheless, if UK is going to be a serious threat, it has to stop third-ranked Florida — the best SEC squad — at least once, preferably twice, and win the remaining conference games. The Cats, though, probably can afford one setback to a non-Florida team.
The first Kentucky-Florida matchup will be on Saturday, Feb. 15 when ESPN televises the SEC showdown as part of ESPN GameDay festivities in Lexington. The second one is in Gainesville, the last game of the regular season, on Saturday, March 8.
Obviously, beating the Gators — who have four seniors in the starting lineup — will give the Cats a great opportunity to boost their NCAA tournament profile. The Gators are No. 5 in this week’s NCAA RPI. The other SEC teams in the NCAA RPI’s Top 75 (as of last Monday) include Tennessee (No. 52), Missouri (57), Ole Miss (58) and LSU (65).
After the LSU loss, Calipari told the media that his team is still “in progress. It is all about the process. The process we are at right now is will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn’t show.”
But Calipari, whose UK coaching record at Rupp Arena is staggering at 80-2, is very hopeful with his young players and their attitude.
“I’m pleased with our team,” said the coach last Saturday. “I like this team. Will we become the team and have the discipline it takes to really make a run to do something unique and special? We’ll see.”
Needless to say, time is almost running out if the Cats are going to do something that is called “special.”