John Clay: Cats have more to prove before Selection Sunday

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 12, 2013 

After the loss at Georgia last week, John Calipari was lamenting the "crap" job he had done this year as Kentucky's basketball coach.

Tuesday, three days after beating conference champ Florida to earn the No. 2 seed in the league tournament, Calipari was in a more reflective mood.

"You know," he said, "this team has gone and done a lot of good stuff."

The real question: Has it done enough good stuff?

Though Saturday's win brought a sigh of relief to the BBN with regard to being selected for the NCAA Tournament, there's no guarantee the Cats are in — especially this year.

Yes, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Kentucky in his field of 68, but among his "last four teams in." CBS' Jerry Palm concurs with including UK, but as a No. 12 seed destined for one of those play-in Dayton games early next week.

Jason MacIntyre of the Big Lead website figures there are 25 bubble teams vying for at most six open spots on the bracket sheet.

What about Middle Tennessee? The Blue Raiders dominated the Sun Belt with a 19-1 record before losing to Richard Pitino and Florida International in the semifinals of the conference tournament. They own a regular-season win over Ole Miss. They are No. 29 in the latest RPI.

What about Baylor, which snapped Calipari's Rupp Arena spotless streak and ripped Kansas by 23 points last Saturday? Discard those two triumphs and the Bears' résumé is positively underwhelming.

What about Southern Miss, which has a better RPI than UK (35 to 50) and owns a win at the very same Georgia where Kentucky lost by 10 in a must-have game?

What about Cincinnati, which beat top-20 teams Pittsburgh and Marquette?

What about the bubble teams in UK's own league?

Tennessee won eight of its last nine. Ole Miss earned two must-wins the last week of the regular season. Alabama beat Kentucky when Kentucky had Nerlens Noel.

"It's a bell curve," Calipari kept saying down the stretch. "There are a lot of teams with F's who are going to get in the tournament."

There will be a lot of teams with F's left out of the tourney, as well. The key may be not the tests you flunked, but the ones you aced.

"We have more wins (four) than anyone else against the top six (of the SEC)," said Calipari on Tuesday, before he made a key addition. "Us and Florida."

One problem. He neglected to add that Mississippi and Tennessee also had four wins.

Another problem. Most Basketball Bennies own low opinions of those top six SEC teams, or at least five of the six.

Most years, Kentucky's reputation hasn't been weighed down by the league's remainders table. This year, the Cats are in a three-way tie for second place in a conference Jeff Sagarin's computer ranks as the sport's seventh-best.

"The other side is," Calipari argued Tuesday, "of what we were and where we were, that's pretty good stuff."

Good enough?

The guess here is that a Friday loss tosses Kentucky right back into the hopper with all those teams that will be rubbing good-luck charms on Sunday night. A trip to Saturday's semifinals equals a little breathing room. A berth in Sunday's final and you can put the blood pressure medicine back in the bottle.

In the end, however, it's up to those nine men and one woman meeting this weekend in Indianapolis. They have other teams to watch besides Kentucky, certainly, but the guess here is their own questions about the Cats remain unanswered.

Are we sure Kentucky is the disappointing, sleep-walking team that came up flat at Georgia?

Or are we certain it is the spirited, competitive team that held Florida scoreless the final seven minutes-plus on Saturday to overtake the Gators?

Kentucky has one more chance to erase the doubt.

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

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