Mark Story: If Cats don't beat Ole Miss, road into NCAA tourney gets very narrow

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 28, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari talked with Archie Goodwin, left, Julius Mays, and Ryan Harrow, 12, as Kentucky defeated LSU 75-70 on Saturday January 26, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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After Kentucky lost to Texas A&M in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12, someone who looks remarkably like me wrote that it was too soon to hit the panic button over the Wildcats' prospects for making the NCAA Tournament.

Some 17 days later, I'm here with an update: If Kentucky does not upset No. 16 Mississippi on Tuesday night in Oxford, feel free to apply finger firmly on the panic activator and start pushing.

With 12 games left in the regular season, the road to the NCAA tourney for a UK team that began the season ranked No. 3 in the country looks distressingly narrow. The Wildcats' body of work is thinner than chicken broth. Against RPI Top 50 teams (source: realtimerpi.com), UK is 0-4. Against teams in the RPI Top 100, Kentucky is 2-6.

Worse, UK's remaining schedule is unfavorable in multiple ways.

There are precious few chances for signature victories. It's hard to ever say a Kentucky men's basketball team has no chance in a game, but the Cats are going to have to take massive steps forward to be competitive at Florida (No. 6 in the RPI and, for my money, one of the four best teams in the country).

Take that game out, Kentucky has three shots at a head-turning win: home games with Missouri (No. 23) and Florida and Tuesday night's tilt in Oxford with the charismatic Marshall Henderson and the rest of Andy Kennedy's Rebels (No. 24 in RPI).

With a victory in Oxford, UK is at least pointed toward making the NCAA Tournament for the 21st time in the last 22 years. Failing that, the Cats are in bubble trouble.

Part of Kentucky's problem is that its remaining schedule is filled with home games against teams with horrid standings in the RPI. Beating South Carolina (141), Auburn (189), Vanderbilt (150) and Mississippi State (213) in Rupp Arena is not going to do anything to lift UK in the power ratings nor in national perception.

Losing one of those would be, in a sports context, catastrophic.

There are other danger spots for UK. In addition to trips to conference co-leaders Florida and Mississippi, Kentucky has two away games left at Tennessee (No. 95) and Arkansas (No. 83). In a sense, these are the worst kind of road games: Contests in difficult environments against teams with relatively low RPI ratings but which are also eminently capable of beating the Kentucky we've seen so far this season.

How confident are you the Cats emerge victorious in Knoxville and Fayetteville? Yeah, me neither.

Still, as challenging as things look, there are still viable ways for the Cats (13-6, 4-2 SEC, No. 58 in the RPI) to get back into the Dance. Let's go all AAA and map out the trip plans.

1. Smooth sailing. Best way into the NCAAs would be for Kentucky to win at Mississippi, beat Missouri and Florida in Rupp (the latter, especially, is far from a sure thing), split the Tennessee-Arkansas road trip and, finally, have no more "bad" losses.

That would leave Kentucky 14-4 in the SEC. That should punch an NCAA tourney ticket without any fuss.

2. The bumpy road. If UK loses in Oxford, and assuming Kentucky has little shot at Florida, that means the Cats likely have to beat both Billy Donovan's Gators and Missouri in Rupp and then play out the rest of the conference season with no more than one loss.

That very tall order would put Kentucky at 13-5 in the SEC but with a victory over a Top 10 team (Florida) and a Top 25 one (Missouri).

It should get UK in, though the Cats might need to win a couple in the SEC Tournament to feel comfortable.

3. Through the back door. Barring a significant step forward by UK, it's entirely possible the Cats will lose at Mississippi, get swept by Florida, lose at home to Missouri and at both Arkansas and Tennessee.

If that happens, Kentucky's NCAA Tournament aspirations will have but one road available: Winning the SEC Tournament.

The 2013 SEC tourney is in Nashville, meaning it is apt to be dominated by blue-clad Cats fans. Buoyed by massive fan support, is it possible that a Kentucky that struggled all season (in this scenario) might "find itself" and make a backs-against-the-wall conference tournament run?

It is.

But no team wants to be in the position to count on that.

All of which is why, if the Kentucky season is going to turn, it needs to start right now.

Lose at Mississippi, and the line in these parts to push that panic button Wednesday morning is going to be long.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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