John Clay: Cats have more work ahead to punch NCAA ticket

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 26, 2013 

  • Mississippi State at Kentucky

    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

    Records: Miss. St. 7-19 (2-12 SEC), UK 19-8 (10-4)

    Series: Kentucky leads 88-20

    Last meeting: Kentucky won 73-64 on Feb. 21, 2012, at Starkville, Miss.

    TV/radio: WKYT-27; WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

The job's not done.

To be sure, Saturday night marked a step forward for this Kentucky basketball team. The must-get 90-83 win over visiting Missouri brought a smile of relief on the collective countenance of the Big Blue Nation, which now feels much more optimistic about an NCAA Tournament berth.

It didn't get the Cats into the tournament, however.

Not one win, anyway, and not that win. The buzz, partly fueled by the presence of ESPN's College GameDay and the drama of the actual game, has caused the victory to be overvalued.

It was a valid victory. The Cats proved they can win a marquee game without their marquee player, Nerlens Noel. They rebounded when they needed to rebound. They made free throws when they needed to make them. They battled when they most needed to battle.

And yet, a quick check reveals that Missouri isn't a Top 25 team. The Tigers had seven losses. They weren't ranked when they arrived at Rupp Arena, and they're not ranked now.

Frank Haith's team had beaten SEC leader Florida 63-60, but that game was in the friendly confines of Mizzou Arena. Outside that venue, Haith's team is 1-6 in the SEC.

"Missouri is us two years ago," UK Coach John Calipari said. "They can't get over the hump on the road."

Just as that 2010-11 Kentucky team lost nail-biters on the road, Missouri lost by three at LSU, by two at Texas A&M, by two at Arkansas and in overtime at Kentucky.

Just because that Calipari team got it together at season's end, however, doesn't mean Missouri will do the same.

(For starters, Calipari is a better coach than Haith, and give me Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins over Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers.)

Nor did Kentucky find an NCAA invitation in its mailbox on Monday morning. Calipari's correct: The selection process is a "bell curve," and the committee doesn't exclude a team for one bad loss. By the same token, it doesn't reward a team for one great win — or Wake Forest will be dancing.

Teams are judged on a body of work, and the numbers suggest that UK has work to do. Heading into Wednesday night's game, Kentucky was 22nd in Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings and 32nd in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. In the all-important RPI, however, the Cats are 46th.

The good news is that the Missouri win put Kentucky in prime position to nail its presentation.

First, Kentucky must give hapless Mississippi State a pounding comparable to UK's peers. Alabama beat State by 28. Arkansas did so by 26. Missouri won by 32. On Saturday, Vanderbilt beat Mississippi State 72-31. In Starkville.

Then comes the key game Saturday in Fayetteville. Arkansas is unbeaten at home in the SEC. A Kentucky win on the same Bud Walton floor where Florida fell by 11 would make a strong statement to the selection committee. That might be the one win guaranteed to get UK's dance card punched.

That is, unless the Cats slip on a banana peel at Georgia. That's easy to do, mind you. After their 1-4 league start, the Dawgs have played one game decided by more than 10 points — and that was an 11-point win at South Carolina. Georgia is just good enough to give any team fits.

Florida comes to Rupp Arena for the regular-season finale March 9. The way Billy Donovan's club beat UK even before Noel's injury in Gainesville, it's hard to see the Cats gaining the upper hand without the flat-top.

Still, Calipari's club needs to be competitive. Bell curve or not, no team wants to be blown out one week before Selection Sunday.

Bottom line: The win over Missouri improved UK's confidence and proved it capable of handling the work that lies ahead.

But the job's not done.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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