With UK on "Bubble", Cats Not Using Tournament Bid as Motivation

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale. KY Forward's coverage of UK sports is sponsored by Republic Bank.

By the time the actual NCAA Tournament bracket is released in just less than two weeks, UK fans may be able to consider themselves experts on things like RPI, strength of schedule, quality wins and bad losses.

With the Wildcats placed firmly on the tournament “bubble,” the bracket projections from national pundits have become daily must-reads for the Big Blue Nation.

After a loss at Arkansas Saturday, the Cats’ NCAA Tournament fate appears anything but certain. Both USA Today and CBS Sports have the Cats in the field, but just barely. Both projections have UK participating in the so-called “play-in” round for the eight teams deemed not worthy of automatic admission to the round of 64.

Meanwhile, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Cats among his “first four out” in his most recent bracket update.

One thing is certain: the Cats have work to do.

“We’ve got to right the ship because there’s a lot to play for right now,” said UK assistant coach John Robic, while filling in for John Calipari on the weekly Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. “Our guys know that, and they’ll be focused on that.”

ESPN’s Daily RPI has UK ranked No. 51 in the RPI. The Cats’ strength of schedule is ranked No. 68 in the country, and their nonconference strength of schedule is ranked No. 69.

While the Cats have no truly bad losses, with an undefeated record against teams ranked out of the RPI top 100, their NCAA Tournament resume is severely lacking in quality wins.

UK is 1-4 against the RPI top 50, with the lone victory coming against No. 32 Missouri. The Cats have wins versus Maryland (No. 68), Tennessee (No. 56), LSU (No. 88), Ole Miss (No. 58) and Texas A&M (No. 85), but they also have lost games against top-100 opponents Baylor (No. 60), Texas A&M, Alabama (No. 59), Tennessee and Arkansas (No. 75).

While the Cats’ NCAA Tournament resume is difficult enough to evaluate on its own merit, the selection committee also will have to decide how to judge UK with its best player, freshman forward Nerlens Noel, lost for the season due to a torn ACL.

The committee traditionally evaluates teams based on what their roster will look in the tournament, but does that mean the Cats get no credit for the wins accumulated when Noel was healthy?

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Robic said. “We’ve been without Nerlens for five games now, and we took some lumps there without him and then played well with him. I think there’s still a lot of teams out there that are still being evaluated.”

If the current bracket projections are to be believed, UK fans at least have an idea about which teams are competing with the Cats for the final at-large spots in the tournament.

Lunardi lists Iowa State, Temple, Villanova and Tennessee as his last teams in the tournament. He includes Alabama, Baylor and Southern Miss with UK in the first four out category. USA Today has Villanova, Virginia, Massachusetts and UK as the last four teams in the field and lists Iowa State, Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland as the first four team out of the field.

With the regular season coming to an end and conference tournaments beginning, the Cats also face the very real possibility that teams considered definitely out of contention for an at-large bid could win their conference tournament and decrease the number of at-large bids available for bubble teams.

While bracket projections and end-of-season scenarios are consuming fans’ attention, UK players and coaches are doing their best to block out the noise.

“I haven’t even been worried about getting into the tournament,” said sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow Friday before UK’s loss at Arkansas. “I guess everybody else is. I haven’t really thought about it. I mean, if we just keep doing what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be in the tournament.”

The one path that guarantees the Cats will be included in the NCAA Tournament field is winning the SEC Tournament and securing the league’s automatic bid. Wins to finish the season against Georgia and Florida would also go a long way to improving their at-large resume.

With that in mind, coaches know the team still has control of its own destiny.

“It’s never once been mentioned that we have to do this or do that to have a chance to get there,” Robic said. “Everything was in front of us. There’s still a lot of things in front of us. That starts with the Georgia game on Thursday.”

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You can read more from Robic’s appearance on the SEC teleconference on the KyForward UK Sports Notebook Tumblr.

Written by Jon Hale

Photo: Willie Cauley-Stein/by Jon Hale