After a satisfying victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores at Memorial Gym Saturday, the Cats will take the coming weekdays off to prepare for their final five regular season games. With a pause in the schedule, let's take a minute to reset where Kentucky is and where they'd like to be over the coming weeks.
1. At 11-0 in the conference with three home games remaining, the Kentucky Wildcats are a lead pipe cinch to win the SEC and take the #1 seed in its post-season tournament. UK's closest competitor, the Florida Gators, were swept this week but remain second overall at 7-3. Sure, the Cats have loftier goals, but winning the league still bears mention. You can go ahead and plan your SEC tournament weekend now, as Kentucky will play at noon on each of March 9, 10 and 11 as long as it advances.
2. With the Ohio St. Buckeye's loss to the Michigan St. Spartans yesterday, there is now some separation between Syracuse, Kentucky and the rest of the candidates for #1 NCAA seeds. The Missouri Tigers are looking good at 23-2 overall with recent wins over Kansas and Baylor. Beyond that, the picture is muddled, with Ohio State, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas in front. Despite 2 losses this week, Baylor is still in the mix at 21-4 and Sparty's win at Ohio State puts it in the conversation at 20-5.
That's a lot of tradition at the top. Very cool.
3. Assuming UK doesn't collapse and remains on the one seed line, my next question is who ends up #2 in its bracket. The NCAA has not done the Cats any favors since Cal took over as Head Coach. That isn't an accusation, it is a fact. I've have one eye on this as a potential storyline. That is why I'm rooting for North Carolina to right the ship and earn a #1 seed. Yes, I know we've already beaten the Tar Heels and are much better than we were when we first played. Personally, though, I want no part of them before the Final Four. UNC is still the second most talented team in the country and starts 3-4 NBA-ready players. Those teams almost always do well in the tournament. If the NCAA is looking to give UK the finger, no better way than to put UNC in our bracket.
Earning the #1 overall seed would help Kentucky's cause in this regard. Despite their #1 ranking, Joe Lunardi at ESPN currently has UK as the #2 overall seed in the tournament, behind Syracuse. To me, that is a joke. Syracuse did not play a road game outside of the Big East, and though they are 6-1 on the road in conference, only one of those wins came against a team with a winning league record (Cincinnati).
4. In order to be #1 overall, Kentucky may have to run the table. Syracuse certainly has a chance to do so. Interestingly, Jim Boeheim's squad's toughest remaining test will likely come Monday night at 7:00pm at the Yum Center against Louisville. So I'll be rooting hard for little brother for once. The Orange also travel to UCONN later this month. There is also the Big East Tournament in Madison Square. For my money, the league is down this year, but Syracuse will probably get a boost if it successfully runs that gauntlet.
5. After last night's performance at Memorial, I'd put the Cats' chances of sweeping their last five SEC games then winning the conference tournament at slightly more than even money. Mississippi State and Florida both suffered home losses to inferior teams yesterday. The Cats will be 6+ point favorites in each of those road games. Of course anything can happen, but a home loss or what would essentially be a home loss in New Orleans during the SEC Tournament look increasingly unlikely. If I told you the over/under for Kentucky losses prior to the NCAA tournament was 1.5, where would you put your money?
6. All of this is well and good, but this team is ultimately going to be judged by what happens in March. With the caveat that Coach Cal has done an amazing job with this team, I have some unsolicited advice for him. Kentucky has excelled in part by avoiding foul trouble and major injury. Alas, those things aren't a given. Over the season's coming weeks, I'd like to see him lengthen the bench a bit. A tough tournament game may necessitate meaningful minutes from Eloy Vargas or a hot hand from Kyle Wiltjer. I'd put a win in jeopardy now to give them some crunch time run. Carving out a few minutes for Twany Beckham here and there would also give our stars fresher legs come tournament time and lessen the chance of something disastrous happening.
7. Finally, a semi-related public service announcement. If you are making provisional plans to attend the Final Four and found that New Orleans hotels are pretty well booked, consider the Mississippi Coast as an alternate home base. Biloxi is an 80 mile mostly highway drive and rooms in the nice casinos are both available and reasonable.
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