Obviously, Kentucky fans hoped to be at no worse than two losses at this point in the season. The Duke game was always going to be a 50/50 game, and it was easy to see the loss there. Losing at Notre Dame is no shame, either -- first road game for a young team against a well-coached and always physical Irish squad.
But the home loss to Baylor really threw a monkey wrench in to the season, placing the Wildcats behind the eight ball coming into their non-conference home stretch. The Wildcats don't have several top 100 teams to help raise them out of the unranked darkness they've been cast into (or more accurately, have cast themselves into), so they must dispatch weak teams by lopsided margins just to keep from falling further out of favor until they have the opportunity to excel on December 29th facing the 6th ranked Louisville Cardinals on the road. Not exactly an easy road to redemption.
So I thought we'd look back at last year and see if we can draw solace from some other teams who had a rough start, but managed to make a deep tournament run.
- Let's start with the Kansas Jayhawks. We all know Kansas did fine, getting a 2 seed and getting to the national final -- UK fans would take that season this year if they could get it, I believe. By December 19th of last year, Kansas had lost three times -- to Kentucky and Duke at neutral sites and to Davidson in a semi-home environment. The difference is, their strength of schedule was much tougher than Kentucky's this year, playing 8 teams inside the top 100 and beating 5. That compares, but not too favorably.
- The Florida Gators are a better comparison. They lost 3 games in their pre-conference schedule and played an even weaker one than Kentucky plays this year. Two of their losses were to high-quality opponents -- Ohio St. and Syracuse -- but their third was to Rutgers, a team outside the top 100 at 119. They then lost their first conference game to Tennessee. They wound up 22-9 (easily where UK could be this year), wound up with a 7 seed, and very nearly made it to the Final Four, losing in the Elite Eight to Louisville by 4.
Florida is a good comparison because they were young, although not as young as UK is now, and their combination of skill and experience is fairly equal to UK's right now -- the 'Cats are more skilled, but the Gators were more experienced while still being plenty skilled.
- Xavier is an example of a team with significantly less talented players. Xavier got by 3 top 50 opponents before dropping three straight to Oral Roberts, Long Beach St. and Hawai'i, two of them at home. They then lost another game to Gonzaga before starting the conference season. Xavier made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, losing to Baylor.
- The Cincinnati Bearcats also ended the pre-conference season with 3 losses -- 2 to teams inside the top 100 and one to Presbyterian, who was outside the top 200. They went on to a 6 seed and a Sweet Sixteen finish.
Obviously, UK fans are not going to be happy with a Sweet Sixteen loss, but the Wildcats have one big thing going for them that most other teams don't -- they out-talent almost everybody they play, and there aren't more than 4 or 5 teams in America who can compare, talent-wise. All they lack is experience, which they'll be getting along the length and breadth of the season.
The dream of a #1 seed, while not quite dead, is certainly on life support at the moment. Should Kentucky lose at Louisville, they will have only 1 quality win outside their conference, and the committee really likes to punish teams who wind up in that position. Of course, if Kentucky runs through the conference undefeated, they have a chance to earn that seed anyway, although that might not even be enough without a win over Louisville.
Whatever winds up happening, at this point, the chances of a top seed for Kentucky are not very good. This year's team is more similar to the 2011 Wildcats than to 2012 or 2010. Conference losses, particularly on the road in places like Florida or Mississippi are quite easy to see this year unless there is radical improvement between now and then.
The Wildcats could wind up the most dangerous sub-2 seed in the tournament, much like they were in 2011. Right now, no team looks dominant like Ohio St. did that year, either, so it's way too soon for Kentucky fans to be worried about what will happen in March -- this could wind up being the year the 'Cats come out of nowhere, and go all the way.