It has been a while since Kentucky Wildcats fans have had even a hint of adversity this early in the season. Many folks will point back to 2011-12, and the Wildcats did lose two games during that non-conference schedule. But there are some pretty big differences between then and now.
In 2011 Kentucky lost to two ranked basketball teams, one at a neutral site (the Connecticut Huskies in the Maui Invitational) and one on the road (the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill). Those were always going to be challenging games for the Wildcats, especially after Enes Kanter was declared permanently ineligible. That year, Kentucky's non-conference strength of schedule was ranked 14th in the nation.
This year, the Wildcats have lost to three of four quality opponents; the Duke Blue Devils, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Baylor Bears. Like 2011, the Duke loss was on a neutral court to a ranked team. Notre Dame was a road loss to an unranked team, and the Baylor loss was (horrors!) a home loss to an unranked team.
Complicating this is the fact that Kentucky's non-conference strength of schedule is only 41st in the country, which means, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, that absent an upset of the Louisville Cardinals in the Yum! center this month, Kentucky is looking at coming away with exactly 1 "quality" win out of five tries.
That's going to hurt come Selection Sunday. The conventional wisdom is that it is difficult for teams to run up the polls during the conference season. That's because there are so many road games and games against conference rivals that upsets are more likely, and the tendency is for teams to finish the conference season ranked the same or lower than where they went in.
So this is where we find ourselves. An upset of Louisville would definitely help the cause, but where Kentucky currently finds itself in the polls will require quite an impressive run through the SEC. The good news is that UK has done it before on numerous occasions, but if we are to use the 2011 team as the most similar to today's Wildcats, we should rationally expect a number of losses during the conference season, as many as six.
The bottom line is that UK is probably, as of now, out of the running for a #1 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament. No, it isn't impossible for the 'Cats to turn that around. We need only look back to 2003 to see a team that entered the conference season with three losses, then rampaged through the SEC to garner a #1 seed. Of course, that was the famous "Suffocats" team.
So should we temper our expectations? Well, I expect most people already have. This stuff isn't rocket science, and the last two games have illustrated in stark relief that this year's Kentucky team has a ways to go before they are even worthy of being considered a lock for the NCAA Tournament. That's not really new -- halfway through the 2011 conference season when Kentucky was 4-4, many of us were wondering if that team would make it to the NCAA's, and we know how that turned out.
Starting tomorrow, the Wildcats finally get a very favorable schedule arrangement that should help Coach Cal get this young team back on the road to success. UK's schedule hasn't been particularly tough in terms of opponents, but it has been very demanding in terms of games played. In the last 23 calendar days, Kentucky has faced no less than 7 opponents, an average of one game every 3.3 days, and that included the Thanksgiving holiday.
Four of those seven opponents have been talented, quality teams, one on the road and two at neutral sites. In other words, the start to this season has been a crucible for such a tenderfoot team. Calipari has been able to do precious little actual development. His time has mostly been spent getting ready for the next game.
The next 26 days feature a total of 5 opponents, only one of whom is a high-quality foe -- the Louisville Cardinals. That's an average of 5.2 days between games, and the way it actually plays out is that starting from Saturday, the Wildcats have only one game per week -- on Saturday -- for three straight weekends. The Christmas holiday is included in there, but that should give Calipari a chance to figure this team out, and these young guys a chance to breathe and learn.
So don't despair, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation, all is not yet lost. Despite the fact that the opponents on this non-conference schedule haven't been all that strong, the opportunities for Coach Cal to coach up his team have been fleeting at best. That changes as of now, and in the next three weeks, we should expect to see significant improvement.