The loss at Tennessee Tuesday struck a telling blow to Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament profile. As a result, the Cats needed to beat Kansas Saturday to bolster a claim for a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.
That’s how ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi assessed Kentucky’s postseason status in late January.
“Fifth overall,” he said on Friday. “So that makes them at the top of the two-line. And I would say they’re a win tomorrow (against Kansas) from returning to the top line.”
Lunardi, who updated his bracket at midweek last week, said Kentucky had some catching up to do with his four No. 1 seeds: Villanova, Kansas, Baylor and Gonzaga.
As Lunardi saw it, Kentucky had fewer “true marquee wins,” although he said UK’s victory over North Carolina in Las Vegas was “as good as it gets.”
This is where Kentucky’s loss at Tennessee comes into play.
Lunardi’s No. 1 seeds did not have such a damaging loss. Kansas had lost to Indiana and at now No. 18 West Virginia. Baylor had lost at West Virginia. Villanova lost at No. 11 Butler and at Marquette, which is third in the Big East.
“So which of these losses doesn’t belong?” Lunardi said. “Tennessee, which was 10-9.
“I’m not saying (Tennessee) sucks. They played North Carolina close. But I’m fairly certain if the committee met, Kentucky would be the odd man out.”
The wildcard is Gonzaga. The Zags were undefeated heading into this weekend, but had not played the most compelling schedule. Best victories were against Florida, now No. 7 Arizona and, ahem, Tennessee.
Lunardi reminded that two standout teams from non-Power 5 conferences got No. 1 seeds: Wichita State in 2014 and St. Joe’s in 2004.
“It’s popular vote versus electoral vote, I guess,” Lunardi said of assessing outstanding won-loss record and problematic strength of schedule.
Lunardi has seen Kentucky play in person. He worked the telecast of UK’s game against Hofstra.
“I thought they were going to be very good,” he said, “but not elite.”
Lunardi considers the 2014-15 team that began the season with 38 straight victories and the Anthony Davis-led national champions of 2011-12 as the standard by which all John Calipari-coached Kentucky teams must be judged.
“So I just think they’re just regular-good,” Lunardi said of the current Cats. “I think they’re 50-50 to be a No. 1 seed.”
Two weekends from now, Feb. 11 to be exact, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will announce the top 16 teams on its very preliminary 2017 bracket.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari applauded what he called an act of “transparency” that gives teams a sense of where they stand.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi was not so impressed.
“Look, we could name most of those teams today,” he said Friday. “We could have named most of those teams in October.
“So this is a P.R. move. And that’s OK. I think ultimately it will have little to no impact on what actually happens, and I’m putting my money on no impact.”
Lunardi said he planned to look at his mock bracket a month from last year’s Selection Sunday to see how much change occurred.
“I’m willing to bet that most people would get most of that right,” he said of the final bracket.
Why did Calipari applauded the upcoming Feb. 11 announcement? Perhaps two reasons:
1. He had called for such in-season updates. He likes being perceived as an innovator.
2. He doesn’t like Selection Sunday surprises even if they shouldn’t be surprising. The UK coach was right to cry foul when his team was a four-seed last year and Texas A&M a three-seed even though Kentucky beat the Aggies in the SEC Tournament final. Message: A ranking of teams a month earlier won’t matter if you play your conference tournament final on Selection Sunday. Be willing to turn down TV money, and play the finals on Saturday.
Calipari also likes to complain about UK’s No. 8 seed in 2014. The Cats had a 1-6 record against ranked teams that season, and had lost four of their last seven games heading into the NCAA Tournament. The losses include one at 13th-place South Carolina and a 19-point smack-down at Florida.
Lunardi called the Feb. 11 announcement “a P.R. stunt.” He questioned what difference it would have been made if it had been done in February of 2014.
When asked if the Feb. 11 announcement was a marketing move, Lunardi said, “Of course it is. It gives us more to talk about.”
The announcement will air on CBS at 12:30 p.m. ET, and serve as an intro into the network’s telecast of Kentucky’s game at Alabama.
Mark Hollis, the chair of the Selection Committee, will be on the show along with Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis and CBS’s bracketologist, Jerry Palm.
Before the game against Hofstra, bracketologist Joe Lunardi said UK fans had given him grief. His crime? He moved Kentucky from a No. 1 seed to a No. 2 after the home loss to UCLA.
There’s a happy ending.
After the game, Lunardi and his youngest daughter went to a nearby fast-food restaurant. A seat seemed unlikely in the crowded restaurant when Lunardi noticed a couple looking at him.
“I could see the husband whispering to his wife, ‘Who is that guy?’” Lunardi said.
The wife challenged the husband to just ask.
“They thought I was a TV sportscaster from Lexington,” Lunardi said.
After identifying himself, Lunardi charmed the UK fans.
“I think I proved my bona fides by knowing enough about Kentucky over recent years,” he said.
The Kentucky fans invited Lunardi and his daughter to sit and eat with them.
“I find a cheeseburger and shakes cures all,” Lunardi said.
As the postseason begins coming into view, so does the likelihood of attention to the growing wave of one-and-done players.
Former Kansas player Jerry Waugh, who turns 90 on Feb. 12, is not a fan.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “I feel so strongly about the maturing of a young man. … From 18 to 22, he grows up and goes out on his own. That’s a little bit of what it’s supposed to be.”
However, Waugh said he cannot fault players who can become wealthy after one year of college.
“What’s so shameful about making several million dollars?” he asked.
And, Waugh added, college basketball does not suffer.
“It’s changed,” he said, “and we live with it and clap and turn on the TV and get just as excited and disappointed.”
This is a bit dated, but as of mid-January, ex-Cat Skal Labissiere was averaging 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 31 minutes in his first 17 games with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings’ D League affiliate.
Labissiere, the 28th pick in the 2016 draft, had been sent down and recalled three times from the D League team. He welcomed the D League experience as a way of “getting a better feel for the game, just really staying in game shape,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “As long as I’m playing and getting better (and) improving, I’m fine with it.”
Last week saw four of the top six teams in The Associated Press poll lose: No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Kansas, No. 4 Kentucky and No. 6 Florida State.
What did this say? “I could really care less,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “I’m only worried about my team and coaching my guys.”
With no team to coach, ESPN analyst Sean Farnham offered his take on so many highly ranked teams losing in a short period of time.
“There’s a lot of good teams,” he said, “but there are a lot of teams with deficiencies.”
When asked about Kentucky’s deficiencies, Farnham cited defensive breakdowns. For instance, Tennessee’s Lew Evans drove to the basket while defenders broke to cover perimeter shooters rather than cut off access to the basket.
Another deficiency? “Shot selection at times,” Farnham said. “Bam (Adebayo) needs to become more of a focal point.”
Freshman Austin Wiley could be a high school senior. Instead, he enrolled at Auburn at the semester break and has made an almost immediate impact. His career-high 19 points led the Tigers to a victory over Alabama last weekend.
“Austin Wiley was an enormous difference,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said after the game. “When Austin first got here, it was all we could do to teach him what we do, and that’s all he wanted to learn. Over the last week or two now that we’ve had him, he knows what we do. Now, let’s start doing some stuff that’s best for him and take advantage of him.”
Pearl stopped short of saying players who join teams at semester break like Wiley and UK’s Hamidou Diallo were revolutionizing college basketball.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a trend … ,” Pearl said of recruits joining college teams at the semester break. “The SEC is better with Austin Wiley in it this year.”
To Tony Delk. He turned 43 on Saturday. … To Rick Robey. He turns 61 on Monday. … To Josh Carrier. He turns 34 on Monday. … To Walter McCarty. He turns 43 on Wednesday. … To former UK assistant coach Doug Barnes. He turns 71 on Wednesday.