As recently as his radio show Monday night, Kentucky Coach John Calipari continued to dismiss conference tournaments as having no impact on a team’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
But the chair of the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi suggested otherwise on separate teleconferences on Wednesday. The chair, Stanford Athletics Director Bernard Muir, said Kentucky was one of six or seven teams in contention for a No. 1 seed.
And how Kentucky fares in the Southeastern Conference Tournament this weekend will be part of the committee’s decision-making, Muir said. That is especially true given how it’s unknown if or how well players like UK’s Reid Travis and Duke’s Zion Williamson will perform in conference tournaments.
“We’ll certainly be discussing player availability, injuries . . . ,” Muir said. “Sometimes they’re not at 100 percent. We’ll evaluate that. We’ll have opportunity this week with conference championship games, conference tournaments, to be able to see how a team is performing.”
In a bracket he updated Wednesday, Lunardi had Kentucky as a No. 1 seed in the South Region. That’s subject to change depending on how teams including Kentucky and Duke perform in conference tournaments, he said.
“Not solid because, A, they could lose (in the SEC Tournament),” Lunardi said of Kentucky. “B, the prospect of Duke reasserting itself and owning a pretty significant head-to-head victory over Kentucky, which admittedly was a long time ago. But it’s still on the board and can’t be ignored.”
Lunardi included Michigan State as another team that could claim a No. 1 seed if the Spartans win the Big Ten Tournament.
Lunardi said that Virginia and Gonzaga were solid No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
An interesting scenario could unfold if Kentucky was made a No. 2 seed. UK could be part of the South Region, which is in Louisville, meaning a No. 1 seed would potentially have to beat the Cats in an arena practically filled with UK fans to advance to the Final Four.
“We make a point of making sure the teams play close to their national region,” Muir said. “In this case, the one you just mentioned with Kentucky, if they happen to be next in line, and Louisville is available, the committee will not have a problem putting them in that potential region provided there’s no other conflict.”
The SEC Tournament holds another interesting scenario. LSU, which won the regular-season championship, will be without Coach Will Wade and starter Javonte Smart. LSU suspended Wade in the wake of reports he made improper comments to a recruiting middleman. Smart was the player involved in that recruiting effort.
“We will spend a lot of time on not only LSU but other schools that have player availability issues, injuries, suspensions, talking through that,” said Muir, who added that the committee will check with the SEC office for answers to questions regarding LSU.
“We’ll watch what happens in the SEC tournament, observe how in this case the Tigers will play in the coming week, then make our assessments as to where we think they should fall as we move forward with this process,” Muir said.
When asked if LSU could be prohibited from playing in the NCAA Tournament, Muir said that was a decision the school should make.
As for other SEC schools’ chances of getting an NCAA Tournament bid, Lunardi said that South Carolina had to win the conference tournament to get in. Of the Gamecocks’ 11-7 league record, he said, “the committee has gotten wiser over the years at looking at these unbalanced schedules in leagues. And the 11-7 just isn’t going to carry the weight that it may have kind of blindly carried . . . in the past.”
Lunardi noted how Nebraska did not get a bid to last year’s NCAA Tournament even though the Cornhuskers had a 13-5 record in the Big Ten.
“They didn’t even get into the top half of an NIT bracket,” he said. “So I’m not optimistic about South Carolina at this point.”
Lunardi added that Florida could get a bid by winning one game in the SEC Tournament. “Provided there aren’t too many more St. Mary’s happening,” he said referencing St. Mary’s upsetting Gonzaga on Tuesday night.
Alabama needed to win two games in Nashville to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid, Lunardi said.
No. 4 Kentucky vs. Mississippi or Alabama
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals
When: 7 p.m. EDT Friday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
TV: SEC Network