Kentucky basketball: Are Cats on the NCAA Tournament bubble?

This Kentucky basketball team now has a little momentum.

First, a 23-point victory over rival Louisville on Saturday afternoon. Then, a positive performance — though one that turned into a nail-biter — against Louisiana State on Tuesday night.

The ratings might say different, but that 74-71 win over LSU in Rupp Arena sure felt like the Wildcats’ biggest victory of the season so far. That’s not saying much, however, and the ratings certainly reflect that point.

UK (10-4, 1-1 in the Southeastern Conference) was ranked No. 4 nationally to start the 2022-23 campaign — and ESPN’s Bracketology website had Kentucky as the No. 1 overall seed in the 2023 version of March Madness after just one game — but the Cats now find themselves clinging to a spot in the NCAA Tournament conversation. If not for the name on the front of the jersey, Kentucky might be on the outside looking in, an unthinkable notion given the preseason expectations around this Wildcats team.

Going into Tuesday’s game, ESPN had the Cats as a No. 8 seed. The Bracketville website’s latest update placed Kentucky as a No. 9 seed. UK’s most recent score on the Bracket Matrix site — a composite of dozens of tournament projections — lists the Wildcats as an 8 seed.

Not exactly the “bubble” zone of NCAA Tournament talk. But not too far away from it either.

And Kentucky’s actual NCAA Tournament résumé is largely lacking.

UK’s best victory so far, according to the NCAA’s in-house grading system? A home win over Yale on Dec. 10. The Bulldogs were No. 58 in the NCAA’s NET ratings at Wednesday’s update, and Kentucky has defeated no team ranked higher this season.

Judging UK’s résumé by the NCAA’s “quadrant system” shows how much work the Cats still have ahead to establish themselves as a tournament team.

According to selection processes of the recent past — as well as the language on the NCAA’s own website — Quadrant 1 wins will be “incredibly important” when judging an at-large team’s status. And Kentucky has been terrible in that regard this season.

The Cats have played three Quad 1 games — the toughest on the schedule, according to the NCAA’s system — and they’ve lost all three by double digits. UK has played three Quad 2 games, and the Cats have two wins (Yale and Michigan) and one loss (Michigan State) in those matchups. Important as it seemed Tuesday night, the LSU victory was shuffled into the Quad 3 category by Wednesday morning, with the Tigers’ NET rating dropping from No. 75 to No. 79 overnight, devaluing that win, for these sorting purposes, at least.

Kentucky’s own NET rating is No. 38. Not bad, by any stretch, but not particularly great, either. Utah State and Auburn are the only two teams rated ahead of the Cats with zero victories over Quad 1 opponents, and neither of those teams has played such a game yet.

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John Calipari’s Kentucky team started out the season projected as a No. 1 seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. That outlook has changed. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Kentucky’s tournament résumé

What comes next is a double-edged sword for John Calipari and the Wildcats.

On one hand, there are more games — lots of them, in fact — that could restore outside faith that this Kentucky team might actually be a national contender. On the other hand, Kentucky will need to, you know, actually win some of those games to regain that status. And there wasn’t a whole lot in the Cats’ previous three Quad 1 matchups to bolster confidence that they can do it.

Calipari says this team is on the improve, however, and his recent statements to that effect will be put to the test in the coming weeks. One of the biggest comes Saturday afternoon.

UK travels to Tuscaloosa to face an Alabama team that is ranked No. 7 in the AP poll — tops in the Southeastern Conference — and No. 8 in the NET ratings, giving the Cats another opportunity at a Quad 1 victory.

In all, there are still eight games remaining on UK’s schedule that currently qualify as Quad 1 matchups, plus another five upcoming games that would fall into the Quad 2 category.

That’s 13 opportunities — eight of them major opportunities — to rewrite the narrative of this season, and the gauntlet begins this weekend.

Kentucky will get few breaks from here on out. The Quad 1 games remaining: at Alabama on Saturday, at Tennessee on Jan. 14, Kansas in Rupp on Jan. 28, Arkansas in Rupp on Feb. 7, at Mississippi State on Feb. 15, Tennessee in Rupp on Feb. 18, at Florida on Feb. 22, and at Arkansas on March 4. (The Cats’ home game against Auburn on Feb. 25 could also easily be a Quad 1 game by the time the final ratings are set).

To paraphrase an overused Calipari line about his players taking shots: the Cats don’t have to win them all. But they can’t lose them all. And, to rediscover some of that preseason swagger and work their way back up the NCAA Tournament seed list, they need to come out on top in at least a few of their biggest remaining games.

Louisville and LSU were small steps in the right direction. The path gets more difficult now, and the more missteps UK has moving forward, the less room for error to avoid that NCAA bubble two months from now.

“We’re still learning about this team. I am,” Calipari said Tuesday night. “Just be patient. Again, I’m telling everybody: be patient with them, because they are trying. …

“I’m impatient, too,” the coach admitted. “But you know, we’ve just got to keep striving. I mean, the next game we play, that’s all I’m worried about. … Alabama. And it will be sold out, you know that. And that’s great. Let’s go. Let’s see where we are with that.”

Next game

Kentucky at No. 7 Alabama

When: 1 p.m. EST Saturday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 10-4 (1-1 SEC), Alabama 12-2 (2-0)

Series: Kentucky leads 116-40

Last meeting: Kentucky won 90-81 on Feb. 19, 2022, in Lexington

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in UK basketball recruiting coverage and created and maintained the Next Cats blog. He is a Franklin County native and first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006.
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