“It’s on,” John Calipari said.
No, that’s not what Calipari said to Doug Sirmons Saturday afterthe official tossed the Kentucky coach three minutes into UK’s game at South Carolina, the one that turned into an 89-62 Big Blue rout.
“It’s on” is what Calipari said the week before. It’s mid-February. There are only three weeks and six games left in the regular season. Tournament time is around the corner. Now is when it starts getting serious. Now is the time to make your push.
Here’s the question: With most analysts in agreement that this is a wide-open year for college hoops, does that make earning a better seed less important or more important?
“It’s always important,” Calipari said Wednesday. “It’s always important. The history is the higher seeds win more than the lower seeds; that’s just how it is. Very rarely, every 10 years, you’ll have a 10th seed or an 11th seed pop through. Every 10 years.”
Is this one of those years?
“We won’t know until the stuff starts,” Calipari said. “I will tell you that it’s starting to group.”
Yes, teams are being grouped together by perception. Teams have had 25 or so games to build their résumés and find a level on the NCAA shelf. You have your possible No. 1 seeds, your high seeds, your middle seeds, your low seeds and your bubble teams, a category that usually commands the most attention but might be the least important.
Where does Kentucky, 19-6 overall and 9-3 in the SEC with six games to play, fit in that discussion?
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Kentucky as a No. 4 seed in the East, slotted in a first-round game against No. 13 seed Stony Brook in Oklahoma City. Lunardi has Villanova as the East’s No. 1 seed.
Jerry Palm, bracketology expert at CBS Sports, has Kentucky as a No. 5 seed in the South, matched up against No. 12 seed Valparaiso in Denver. Palm has Kansas the South’s No. 1 seed. (Louisville’s KFC Yum Center hosts the South Region finals, by the way.)
Kentucky is ranked 14th in both the AP and the coaches’ polls, which would slot the Cats as a No. 4 seed. Heading into Wednesday night’s games, Kentucky was 12th in the RPI, 11th in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings for USA Today and eighth in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics numbers.
“The disappointing thing for us is, in our league if you lose a road game, it’s devastating,” Calipari said. “It was only a couple of weeks ago that we lost at Auburn. And Auburn hasn’t won a whole lot since then. But, so, OK, we lost a road game. And we’re fine.”
In its past three games, Kentucky has been more than fine. It beat Florida by 19, Georgia by 34 and South Carolina by 27, the latter on the road. You could make a strong case that Calipari’s club is playing its best basketball of the season at just about the time when teams want to be playing their best basketball of the season.
“I’m focused on this team,” Calipari said. “We’ve got three weeks left. The season has blown by. There’s been ups and downs to it, but the greatest thing has been to see the progress; you can see guys getting better. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
There’s also opportunity to move toward a better seed. After Thursday’s game with visiting Tennessee, UK travels Saturday to Texas A&M, No. 22 in the RPI. On Tuesday the Cats host Alabama, then visit Vanderbilt, traditionally a tough place to play, on Feb. 27. On March 1, Kentucky is at Florida, No. 27 in the RPI.
The regular-season finale pits Kentucky against visiting LSU in a game that could determine the regular-season SEC title.
“You know when we walk into the conference tournament, that’s all I talk about,” Calipari said. “It’s about seeding more than anything else.”
Yes, it’s on.
Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament seeds under John Calipari
2010: No. 1 in East (lost to West Virginia in regional finals)
2011: No. 4 in East (lost to Connecticut in Final Four)
2012: No. 1 in South (beat Kansas in NCAA title game)
2014: No. 8 in Midwest (lost to Connecticut in NCAA title game)
2015: No. 1 in Midwest (lost to Wisconsin in Final Four)