Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky now back in the hunt for a No. 1 seed

Update: Kentucky is now No. 5 in the updated NCAA NET rankings.

One thing Kentucky accomplished with its 86-69 domination of top-ranked Tennessee on Saturday night is the Wildcats are squarely back in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

If you remember, the Cats were the top No. 2 seed when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee did its “Early Bracket Preview” show on Feb. 9. Duke, Tennessee, Virginia and Gonzaga were the No. 1 seeds. Kentucky was the top No. 1 seed, followed by Michigan, North Carolina and Michigan State.

UK’s 73-71 loss to LSU on Feb. 12 threatened to take John Calipari’s team out of consideration for one of those four No. 1 seeds. But the Cats are clearly back in the hunt after taking down Tennessee on Saturday.

Jeff Borzello of ESPN says it is now time to return the Cats to the top tier of teams. “Take the entire season into account, though, and it’s pretty clear Kentucky is among the five best teams in the country right now. The Wildcats have lost three games since Nov. 6 by a combined five points. They’re No. 5 at KenPom and No. 6 in the NET, BPI and Sagarin rankings. They’ve beaten Tennessee, North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville, and have eight Quadrant 1 wins — third-most of anyone in the country.”

Seth Davis of CBS Sports and The Athletic now has both Kentucky and Tennessee as No. 1 seeds. Duke is Davis’ overall No. 1 seed, followed by Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. His No. 2 seeds are Gonzaga (5), North Carolina (6), Michigan State (7) and Michigan (8).

Davis’ Top 25 has Kentucky at No. 2, behind Duke at No. 1. He has Virginia at No. 3, followed by Tennessee, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan and LSU at No. 10.

Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports has UK at No. 4 behind Duke, Gonzaga and Virginia. He has Tennessee at No. 5 and LSU at No. 11.

Scott Gleeson of USA Today looks at which No. 2 seeds in the early bracket preview could steal a No. 1. “The first of those No. 2s, Kentucky, is coming off an impressive home victory over No. 1 seed Tennessee. The win helped offset a loss last week to a strong LSU squad and also gave the Wildcats eight Quadrant 1 (top-30 home, top-75 road) victories. Kentucky (21-4, 10-2 SEC; No. 6 NET) won’t get another shot at LSU until the SEC Tournament, but it gets two road contests that could add to its Q1 total, including a rematch on the road vs. Tennessee on March 2. Win out the regular season with a victory over a No. 1 seed on the road and it puts pressure on the ‘Zags.”

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi should be updating his Bracketology soon. He hasn’t done a bracket update since Feb. 14, when he had Kentucky as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, opening up tourney play in Des Moines.

The same goes for Jerry Palm of CBS Sports. His latest bracket predictions, posted Friday, had UK as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest with Virginia being the No. 1 seed in that region. Jerry had Tennessee as the No. 1 seed in the South.

UK is fifth in the latest kenpom rankings, behind Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga and Michigan State. The Cats are 14th in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Tennessee is now No. 7 overall, behind Michigan at No. 6. The Vols are No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency and 52nd in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Kentucky is sixth in the latest Sagarin computer rankings behind Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia, Michigan State and North Carolina. Tennessee is seventh. The Cats are now 7-2 against Sagarin Top 25 teams. Only Duke has a better record against the Top 25. The Blue Devils are 7-1.

Unfortunately, as I type this, the NCAA NET computer rankings had not been updated with the weekend games. Heading into Saturday, Kentucky was at No. 6 behind Gonzaga, Duke, Virginia, Tennessee and Houston.

Whether Kentucky can secure a No. 1 spot might depend on whether the Cats can win the SEC’s regular-season title. I took a look at the three-team race in my Monday print column, which you can find here.

Kentucky is back in action Tuesday night at Missouri. Tennessee plays host to Vanderbilt on Tuesday. LSU welcomes Florida to Baton Rouge on Wednesday.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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