Heading into conference tournament week, there’s a consensus forming among bracketologists.
Kentucky, seemingly, has an inside track on the No. 1 seed in the South Regional, which will be played about 75 miles down the road in Louisville.
There’s still plenty of basketball to be played between now and Selection Sunday, however, and UK fans should probably root for a couple specific scenarios to come true over the next few days.
One, it would obviously behoove the Cats to win the SEC Tournament, which could feature a rubber match against Tennessee on Saturday and a rematch with Louisiana State on Sunday.
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Two, Kentucky fans should hope Virginia wins the ACC Tournament, or — more to the point — that neither Duke nor North Carolina wins the ACC Tournament.
CBS Sports analyst Jerry Palm has Virginia, Gonzaga, UK and North Carolina as the four No. 1 seeds going into the major conference tournaments, with the Wildcats playing in the Louisville regional. ESPN’s bracketology and Yahoo Sports’ “bracket big board” reach the same conclusion. While there’s much to be sorted out, at least a couple of things are clear.
“Virginia doesn’t have to win again. They’re definitely a one,” Palm told the Herald-Leader. “I think you’re looking at Gonzaga, two ACC teams, and two SEC teams for the other three spots.”
He added that Gonzaga — barring an upset loss in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game late Tuesday night — would be a No. 1 seed. The Zags are currently No. 1 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and would be atop the Anaheim regional.
Palm said that he wouldn’t rule out LSU, Michigan or Michigan State for No. 1 seeds — if any of those teams win their league tournaments — but acknowledged that “those are longer shots” to end up on the top seed line, and the remaining No. 1s would likely go to some combination of UK, Tennessee, Duke and North Carolina.
At least two of those teams won’t make it past their conference semifinals this weekend. UK and Tennessee are on a collision course in the SEC Tournament, and UNC and Duke would play each other in Friday’s ACC semifinals, should they both win their quarterfinal games.
If UK does indeed play the Vols for a third time Saturday, the Cats need to win that one.
“It’s important,” Palm said. “The winner of that game will definitely be seeded ahead of the loser — I don’t think there’s any question. Now, if either one of them is a one (seed), remains to be seen. But the winner of that semifinal, if it happens, would definitely be seeded ahead of the loser.”
It seems unlikely that both Kentucky and Tennessee would be one seeds, so the loser will likely be eliminated from the conversation.
The same might be true in the ACC.
“I just think that either Duke or Carolina has to win the conference tournament to be (guaranteed) a one,” Palm said, noting that the question over how to treat the Blue Devils’ losses while star player Zion Williamson was sidelined will likely be settled on the court.
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said over the weekend that he expects Williamson to return from his injury in time for the ACC Tournament. So, the Blue Devils either beat UNC with Williamson on Friday — and possibly win the tourney the next day — or they lose with him. Another defeat would give Duke six losses on the season.
“The losses still count without Zion. People are trying to pretend that those games don’t count. They count,” Palm said. “And if Duke does lose in the conference tournament, they’re probably losing with Zion, because he’s supposed to play. If Duke wins the conference tournament, they’re a one, and I don’t think anybody would question that.”
Palm added that other teams still in contention for top seeds — including Kentucky — have also suffered losses with key players sidelined due to injury.
Whichever ACC team is rated highest by the committee will go to the Washington, D.C. regional — the closest in proximity to all three of those schools — leaving the Louisville and Kansas City regionals as the next to be filled.
If the committee puts UK among the top three teams on its overall seed list, the Cats will play in Louisville. Simple as that. If UK is ranked in the No. 4 spot — behind two of those ACC teams — the Cats will be sent to the Kansas City regional.
But Kentucky could still stay close to home, even if it’s not a one seed.
USA Today’s latest bracket projections have the Cats as the No. 2 seed in Louisville, with North Carolina as the No. 1 seed. There’s a decent chance that could happen.
If the selection committee ranks UK as the No. 5 overall team — and, therefore, the top 2 seed — they would go to the closest regional site. The only two exceptions to that, Palm said, would be if the No. 1 overall team were the one seed in Louisville. That won’t happen, since the No. 1 overall seed will be either the top ACC team, which will be in D.C., or Gonzaga, which will be in Anaheim.
The other exception will be if Tennessee is the one seed in Louisville. The committee would keep the two highly ranked league foes separated until the Final Four, in that case, and Kentucky would most likely end up as the two seed in Kansas City.
Another theory floating around in recent days is that the committee wouldn’t let UK be a two seed in nearby Louisville, as that would be “unfair” to whoever the one seed is in that regional. Palm said that would not be a consideration.
“Gosh, no. Absolutely not,” he said. “They’re going to put Kentucky in Louisville if they can. They’d be crazy not to.”
As far as whether that would be “unfair” to the one seed, Palm joked: “It’s unfair to whoever they play, wherever they play. Kentucky fans will show up anywhere — it doesn’t matter. … If they ever have a regional in Tokyo, Kentucky fans will sell it out. And you’ll feel sorry for the Japanese team playing them.”