When put to the eyeball test Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats looked for some stretches of the game like a top-10 team – maybe even a potential Final Four team.
But when you look at the Wildcats on paper, you see an NCAA-tournament bubble team.
Do I expect Kentucky to make the field of 68? Absolutely. The team that rallied from 17 points down and only lost by three at Louisville has more talent than almost anyone in America, and the upside remains significant as the young parts mature and coalesce.
But here is the flip side: The Cats have deposited precious little in the Quality Win Bank in 2012, and the 2013 portion of the schedule doesn't offer many opportunities to change that. The defending national champions may have to rely on that December eyeball test – and Kentucky's brand name – to avoid sweating out a bubble scenario.
Kentucky currently is 8-4 overall, with a 1-3 record away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. That translates to a sketchy RPI of No. 52, behind the likes of Western Michigan, Stephen F. Austin, LaSalle, Canisius and McNeese State. Other computers like the Cats more – they're No. 12 with efficiency guru Ken Pomeroy and No. 31 with Jeff Sagarin – but this is not a team that has distinguished itself in non-conference play.
The road/neutral losses were all against good teams – Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville. The average margin of defeat was a respectable eight points, though the Wildcats never led in the second half in any of the three games. The lone victory is over a middling Maryland team (No. 59 RPI, 38 Sagarin, 54 Pomeroy) in the season opener on a neutral court. (Memo to Big Blue Nation: Root for the Terrapins the rest of the season. Hard.)
The rest of the Kentucky résumé is fluff: Lafayette, Morehead State, Long Island, Samford, Portland, Lipscomb, Marshall. None of those is an RPI top-150 opponent. The only decent team to enter Rupp this season was Baylor (No. 38 RPI, 34 Sagarin, 30 Pomeroy), and the Bears left with a victory. (Turns out John Calipari would have been better off playing Indiana this year after all; losing to the Hoosiers would have helped the RPI.)
The NCAA selection committee mantra tends to be, "Who did you play and where did you play them?" Kentucky has played enough good opponents away from Rupp to satisfy that part of the requirement.
But tweak the question to this: "Who did you beat and where did you beat them?" Then there aren't a lot of good answers to those questions so far for Kentucky. That's why getting in the tournament is one thing, and getting a decent seed is another.
And the problem is that conference play doesn't offer a lot of chances to greatly improve the body of work.
The Southeastern Conference could be declared a federal disaster area any day now. At best, it is the seventh-strongest league in the land, and at worst it is No. 9. There has been almost nothing for the Block and Tackle Conference to brag about on the hoops side.
There have been 20 losses to teams outside the RPI top 100, four of them to teams outside the top 200. There have been just 22 victories over top-100 opponents – a combined three from Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Mississippi State.
The league's road/neutral record is 20-40, which is flat awful.
That means all those lousy non-conference power rankings will conspire to weigh down the body of work within the league. Thirty-nine percent of Kentucky's 18-game SEC schedule is against teams currently outside the RPI top 180: two games against No. 181 Vanderbilt and No. 253 Auburn; and one each for No. 234 South Carolina, No. 237 Georgia and No. 270 Mississippi State.
That puts an imperative on beating the few quality teams the Wildcats will play between now and Selection Sunday. There are two regular-season games against Florida (No. 11 RPI, No. 5 Sagarin, No. 3 Pomeroy), one at home against Missouri (No. 32 RPI, No. 20 Sagarin, No. 21 Pomeroy) and one on the road against Mississippi (No. 45 RPI, 29 Sagarin, 28 Pomeroy). There also are two against Tennessee (No. 41 RPI, No. 54 Sagarin, No. 62 Pomeroy) that could mean something if the Volunteers get their act together.
The Wildcats cannot afford a common malady for young teams: hiccups on the road. The 2011 Kentucky team lost six SEC games on the road before rounding into form in late February and ultimately making the Final Four. But that team had non-conference victories over Washington, Notre Dame and Louisville to outweigh the league lapses.
This year's team has no such cushion. Kentucky should win a lot of games in a bad league – but it must win at least one of the few big remaining ones in order to avoid any NCAA tournament bubble stress down the road.
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