With the recent surge in the Wildcats’ recent play, their NCAA hopes are certainly more optimistic than they were a few weeks ago. While a key win over Ole Miss and not losing trap games to Texas A&M and South Carolina have certainly bolstered their NCAA resume, there’s still a lot of work to be done. At the present, they’re 45th in the most recent RPI ratings at realtimerpi.com. Their best wins on the season are against No. 48 Ole Miss and No. 69 Maryland. That would normally be cause for concern, especially considering they’ve played nine games against Top 100 teams, but fortunately they don’t have any “bad losses”, losses to sub-100 teams. The somewhat weaker schedule, lacking usual opponents Indiana and North Carolina, doesn’t help matters either.
The upcoming schedule doesn’t necessarily do the Cats any favors. Of the nine remaining regular season games, only three are RPI top-forty matchups, two games against Florida (No. 3) and Missouri (No. 33). Only one other, Arkansas (No. 81) is a Top 100 team. The rest of the remaining teams are sub-100, and a lost to any of them, Auburn (No. 203), Tennessee (No. 105), Vanderbilt (No. 157), Mississippi State (No. 228) or Georgia (No. 120), could very well be a death knell to their tournament hopes.
So what needs to be done to ensure a trip to the Big Dance?
Splitting the series with Florida
The Gators are playing some of the best basketball in the country right now. But if the Arkansas game taught us anything, it’s that Florida is beatable, especially in a tough road environment. They’ll travel to Gainesville on February 12 for their first matchup, and they’ll come to Rupp on March 9 in the season finale. A win in the road contest would most certainly propel Kentucky into a much safer status, but the odds are long that Kentucky can beat one of the best teams in the country on their home floor. Their best bet would be to win their home game against the Gators. If they can split the series, that gives them another resume-building win on their record. With so few opportunities for a big win left, squandering one of these opportunities could be disastrous.
Beat either Missouri or Arkansas
A win against Missouri, coupled with a win against Florida, could very well punch the Cats’ dance card. But much like Florida, it’ll be hard to beat a talented Tigers team even at Rupp. While they may not be quite as talented as Florida, Mizzou is still mighty dangerous. A backup plan could be to get a key win over Arkansas on the road. A win over the Razorbacks would be a HUGE feather in the cap of the Cats, especially after they walloped Florida by 20+ points a few nights ago. The voters would look at that win thinking “Hey, they beat Arkansas on the road when Florida couldn’t”, giving them some much-needed leverage come Selection Sunday.
Win a few games in the SEC Tournament
A win in the SECs would naturally give them a lock in the tournament. But even if the Cats can’t make it to the championship game in Nashville, a good run in the tournament could work wonders.
As it stands now, SEC is third in the standings. If the season plays out like it is now, you’d have:
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
- Mississippi State
Under the currently approved bracketing system (which you can find HERE), that would give Kentucky a bye until the theoretical third round, where they would play the winner of Game 6, Arkansas vs. the Auburn/Mississippi State winner. A win (or presumably, a second win) over Arkansas would be a tremendous boon to their championship hopes. A win there puts them in a theoretical rematch against Ole Miss (assuming they survive Georgia or Tennessee). A second win over the Rebels would help too, giving them another win over a Top 50 team. So even if the Cats’ luck runs out in the tournament finals, they’ve amassed enough of a resume to make it to The Dance.
Strong season finishes for Ole Miss and Maryland
Even if Kentucky isn’t able to snag a win over Florida or Missouri or Arkansas, hopes aren’t dashed just yet. Although, as Joe Cocker once said, they’ll have to get by with a little help from their friends. As it stands right now, Kentucky has their two marquee wins over Ole Miss and Maryland. These two teams will have to finish their seasons strong with some big wins to make Kentucky’s RPI number jump.
Ole Miss has four upcoming games against Top 100 teams (Missouri, Texas A&M twice and Alabama). They also have five games against Sub 100 teams (Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU). Two or three wins against the Top 100 and no losses against the Sub 100 would make Kentucky’s win look even better.
Maryland, on the other hand, could be a bit shakier. They have only two games against Top 100 teams in a surprisingly weak ACC, but they’re two biggies: Duke (No. 1) and North Carolina (No. 34) on their home floor. The rest of their schedule (Virginia Tech, Virginia twice, Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest) don’t rank any higher than 111th. Losses against any of those teams will also cause Kentucky’s rating to fall. Needless to say, Kentucky fans also need to be Rebels and Terrapins fans in the next few weeks.
It’s certainly not going to be an easy path from here on out, but these young Cats have shown a lot of grit over the past few weeks. They can certainly contend in every game from here on out. Will it be enough to get them into the Field of 68? Only time will tell.
GO BIG BLUE!