Analysts say it's way too early to panic about Kentucky's 3 losses, drop in polls

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 16, 2013 

Kentucky's descent from No. 11 to No. 19 in The Associated Press poll this week marked the biggest fall for any team. UK's 8-3 record equals the 11-game start by last season's NIT-bound team. The Cats are 0-3 against ranked teams and 0-3 in games decided by five points or less.

Should fans of the pre-season No. 1 team be concerned about a top seed or even making the NCAA Tournament?

Nah.

Jim O'Connell, who has been the national college basketball writer for the Associated Press since 1987, said such anxiety is wild over-reaction.

"If you fail a pop quiz in the first week of school, they're going to give you a 'F' for the whole year?" he said.

Kentucky's three losses were all away from Rupp Arena, O'Connell said. All were against ranked teams: No. 5 Michigan State, No. 12 Baylor and No. 14 North Carolina.

Noting there are 14 teams still unbeaten, and three of those (Pitt, St. Mary's and Toledo) unranked, O'Connell said, "I'll take Kentucky's three losses over their zeroes on the right-hand side anytime."

Paradoxically, O'Connell saw the winner of Saturday's Kentucky-North Carolina game in the more uneasy position at this ultra-early juncture of the season.

"North Carolina's the one that has ugly losses to explain," he said of the Tar Heels losing to Belmont and UAB. "Kentucky has nothing even close to that. If Kentucky's worried, North Carolina must be on the ledge getting ready to be talked back."

ESPN analyst Dick Vitale tweeted reassurance to Kentucky fans: "RELAX BBN. In a month (UK) will be back top 10."

Jimmy Dykes, who works Southeastern Conference games for ESPN, uses airplane seating as an analogy to describe a team's NCAA Tournament profile.

"Started off in 1st class," he texted of Kentucky, "and have been politely asked to move back to coach."

The amenities of first class might rest with one game, Dykes texted. "Louisville game a must if first class still an option."

Joe Lunardi, ESPN's "bracketologist," posted a bracket for the 2014 NCAA Tournament on Monday. He had Kentucky as a No. 4 seed along with Kansas, Baylor and North Carolina. He had the Cats playing 13th-seed North Dakota State in Spokane, Wash. That's meaningless except as a conversation starter.

Two other number-crunchers, Ken Pomeroy and Jerry Palm, saw the 8-3 start as mere prelude.

"It's not a No. 1 seed type of résumé," Palm wrote in an email. "But they wouldn't sweat missing the tournament either. The big wins will eventually come."

Palm, who posts brackets for CBSSports.com, said he might put UK in the five- to seven-seed range this week.

Noting that he does statistical analysis and not NCAA Tournament brackets, Pomeroy laid out a best-case scenario.

"If they go, say, 15-3 in conference play, I would think a two-seed would be possible, though perhaps a three is more likely with a loss to Louisville," he wrote in an email.

The SEC might provide only limited help for a team's Ratings Percentage Index. Pomeroy rates the SEC as no better than sixth among conferences. He has only two SEC teams other than Kentucky in his top 40: No. 12 Florida and No. 33 Tennessee.

"Those three losses ... don't really hurt them that much if they win the league over Florida," he wrote.

As for the AP poll this week, three voters did not include Kentucky on their top 25 ballot this week: Aaron Brenner of the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, Chris Dachille of WBAL-TV in Baltimore and Doug Doughty of The Roanoke (Va.) Times.

"Not really a conscious decision to leave Kentucky out," Doughty said of UK. "I went to the standings on ESPN, wrote down all the unbeaten teams (14) and most of the one-loss teams (18). Also wrote down five of the two-loss teams. I gave some consideration to Kentucky, almost certainly the best three-loss team in the country, but wasn't sure in my mind how good North Carolina is.

"I don't doubt that Kentucky could beat a lot of these top-25 teams home or away, but three losses by mid-December dropped them below my cutoff line."


Saturday

Belmont at Kentucky

When: Noon TV: ESPNU

Records: Belmont 8-3; No. 19 Kentucky 8-3

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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