John Clay

Cats in bubble trouble again

John Clay
John Clay

Four out of five. That might be what it takes. Or the bubble bursts.

That bubble feel familiar? It should. As the stretch drive begins, Kentucky basketball sits atop the NCAA Tournament bubble for the fourth consecutive year. And for the fourth consecutive year, no one is sure just what exactly is required to slide off the bubble and into the draw.

"There is no definite answer to what they have to do to get in," CollegeRPI.com's Jerry Palm, a bracketologist for CBS Sportsline, replied in an e-mail message on Thursday when asked about work Kentucky had left to do.

With five regular-season games remaining, the 2005-06 Kentucky team was a mere 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference and 16-9 overall. It won three of its last five, then two more in the SEC Tournament, earned an invitation and lost to Connecticut in the second round. The '06-07 team, Tubby Smith's last at Kentucky, was 18-7 overall, 7-4 in the SEC. It won two of its last five and won one game in the SEC Tournament. But it was still invited to the Big Dance, where it lost to Kansas in the second round.

Last year's team, Billy Gillispie's first Kentucky team, was 14-10 overall, but an encouraging 8-3 in the SEC. It won four of its last five, even after losing Patrick Patterson to injury. It lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament (to Georgia) and the NCAA Tournament (to Marquette).

Now here sits Gillispie's second team, 18-8 overall and 7-4 in the conference heading into this crucial Saturday afternoon matchup with Tennessee. Just as with the economy, might this be the year the bubble bursts?

"Kentucky has a schedule of opportunity," wrote Palm. "They play each of the other four SEC at-large contenders."

That the Cats do. After the tangle with Tennessee, another of the four teams that share the top spot in the SEC East, Gillisipie's group travels to South Carolina, yet another member of the gang of four. Next Saturday, Kentucky returns home to face SEC West leader and now prohibitive overall conference favorite Louisiana State.

After Thursday night's games, Kentucky ranked 65th in the latest Ratings Percentage Index, numbers known to influence the tournament selection committee. Four of UK's remaining opponents are all rated in front of the Cats. Tennessee was 22nd, LSU 40th, Florida 44th and South Carolina 47th.

The best way to catch the teams in front of you is to beat the teams in front of you. That opportunity exists.

But is that what really matters? Joe Lunardi, bracketologist for ESPN, argues that it's not your conference mates you should worry about. Instead, it's the closest bubblemates on the RPI ladder that most affect a team's chances. Argues Lunardi, the committee doesn't look at conference numbers as much as it looks at overall numbers.

If that's the case, UK should be more concerned with Mississippi at No. 61, followed by Maryland, Rhode Island and Saint Mary's.

It might also be concerned with the fact that, according to Jeff Sagarin's computer numbers, a No. 45 Kentucky has just one win against a top 25 team — No. 12 West Virginia.

But even given all that, there's no definitive answer about what gets you in, and what leaves you out.

"That's life near the bottom of the at-large pool," wrote Palm of the Cats, "but with that schedule, you'd like to think winning four of their last five would be enough. Unfortunately, they have not played well consistently enough to make you believe they can do that. That means they'll likely have to make some noise in the conference tournament, maybe even win it."

The game now is survive and advance. More than one loss in this final five might not be a Kentucky killer, but it's certainly a setback. The schedule is much like today's market, or so we're told. It's stacked with peril. And opportunity.

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