UK walking fine line between bid and NIT

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 3, 2009 

  • Georgia at UK

    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday | Records: Georgia (11-18, 2-12 SEC); Kentucky (19-10, 8-6 SEC) | TV: WKYT-27

On his radio show Monday night, Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie spoke of re-doing (read: soften) the schedule beginning next season. Most teams experience a dip in league play, he said, so the pre-conference portion of the schedule must not be too difficult.

"You don't want that to be your undoing as far as the NCAA Tournament," he said.

That sounded like a coach rationalizing the possibility of not receiving a bid. With a 19-10 record, Kentucky seemingly enters the regular season's final week neither assured of a bid nor doomed to miss the Big Dance for the first time since 1991.

Bracketologist Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Kentucky receiving a bid as a 10th or 11th seed. He sees UK as better than other so-called "bubble" teams because of the sweep of Tennessee, plus victories over Florida and West Virginia.

Yet even with that, Lunardi said of the Cats, "They're probably one big gust of wind from the NIT."

Cue lowly Georgia, who can be the gale-force wind that obliterates Kentucky's NCAA Tournament chances by winning Wednesday's game in Rupp Arena.

"That would be a killer," Lunardi said. "Georgia can only hurt (the Cats), not help them."

Another bracketologist, Jerry Palm of the Web site collegerpi.com, isn't even that confident of Kentucky getting a bid. "They're in a lot of trouble," he said.

At this late date, Kentucky needs to play — and win — with more consistency. Plus, home losses have crippled the Cats, Palm said. For only the third time since 1966-67, UK has lost five home games.

"That's not something tournament teams do," Palm said. "They usually defend the home floor and can't win on the road."

Looming large is Kentucky's regular-season finale at Florida on Saturday. Lunardi considers both "bubble" teams. He gives the nod to UK, for now, based on the Cats' victory in Rupp Arena Feb. 10.

"If Kentucky goes to Florida and loses, the teams could switch positions," Lunardi said.

Then there's potentially much more reshuffling in next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Gillispie has repeatedly said he does not waste time pondering the daily updates. He concentrates on the task at hand, and is content to wait until after the SEC Tournament to add up the victories and then consider the NCAA Tournament implications.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan said much the same thing on an SEC teleconference on Monday. All teams are subject to incessant NCAA Tournament speculation, whether on the "bubble," a national championship contender or somewhere between. In the last three years, his Gators have been both: national champions in 2006 and 2007, then unable to secure a bid last year.

"It's the same thing for all teams across the country," Donovan said. "If your team is definitely in the tournament, what's being talked about is the seed, playing for seed. If you're on the cusp, people talk of the 'bubble.'

"But the one thing that cures all those things is when you win. That's really what it comes down to."

Donovan lumped the NCAA Tournament speculation in with the multitude of other distractions that all teams face in a season. Speculation about early entry into the NBA Draft. Family crisis. Girlfriend problems.

"You always have to deal with distractions," Donovan said.

When Rick Pitino coached Kentucky's teams, he always glowed with positive thoughts this time of year. Whatever happened, Pitino spoke of it as a good sign.

Gillispie sounded that way when asked during the teleconference about Kentucky's gut-wrenching loss to LSU on Saturday.

"I saw a lot of bright spots," the UK coach said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to build on those bright spots."

When asked to elaborate, Gillispie spoke of the first 10 minutes of the second half when Kentucky turned an eight-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead.

"We finally got a little bit of pressure on the ball to start our defensive possession," Gillispie said. " ... The bright spot would be the competitive nature of the first 10 minutes of the second half."

Palm saw Kentucky needing to beat Georgia and Florida this week to secure a bid. A split would leave UK with a 9-7 conference record and thus needing to do "serious damage" in the SEC Tournament, the bracketologist said.

Kentucky's Ratings Percentage Index of No. 66 as of Sunday night was uncomfortably close to the worst ever to receive a bid (New Mexico was No. 74 in 1999).

"That says to me you need to have other compelling reasons to make that number irrelevant," Lunardi said. "And they don't yet."

And how can Kentucky provide those compelling reasons?

"It's like Al Davis said," Lunardi said. "Just win, baby."

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