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Derek Willis injury may cost Kentucky Wildcats more than we realize

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If Willis doesn't return soon, don't be surprised if UK doesn't get the seeding they deserve on Selection Sunday.

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There's no question the Kentucky Wildcats are not the same team without Derek Willis.

That's a statement virtually no one thought we'd be saying before this season began, but after the Cats struggled to a 13-4 start, John Calipari made a minor tweak by making Willis the starting 4. That led to a major change in how UK played and appeared to make them a legit Final Four contender after a 7-2 stretch that included an overtime loss at Kansas, a team now poised to be the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament.

But since Willis seriously injured his ankle at Texas A&M, UK has lost two of three including that OT loss in Reed Arena. The Cats have scored just 72.3 points per game compared to the 81.8 ppg they averaged with Willis starting before the A&M game.

There's no debating UK simply isn't as good without Willis, and with no clear-cut return date, it may cost them in terms of seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA selection committee has docked teams a seed line or two when they've suffered late-season injuries.

Last week, the Big Lead did a roundtable on this very topic and got some of the top college hoops minds to weigh in on how much an injury can affect seeding.

JAY BILAS, ESPN

I do believe the Committee should take injuries and other factors into account.  Those variables should not be used as excuses, but to understand the strength of teams in order to properly select and seed those teams.  For example, if a No. 1 and unbeaten Cincinnati loses Kenyon Martin for the season with five games left in the season and loses four of its remaining games, I would find it somewhat irresponsible to seed Cincinnati as a No. 1 or No. 2, even if its overall record might demand it.  That is an injury that materially affects the team and how good that team is.  Similarly, if Clemson beats a No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky, but Kentucky has two players suspended and one injured, one cannot give Clemson credit for beating Kentucky at full strength, with the attendant RPI boost.

NICOLE AUERBACH, USA TODAY

I think they do take this into consideration. They do not completely throw away results, but we have seen for years how these factors can impact seeding (usually seeding, not selection). What’s most important when thinking about these factors is the timing. Was it a short-term injury (like Denzel Valentine’s) that the player returned from? Or is it a season-ending injury to a star player that’s suffered on March 1 and will impact the way the team plays in the tournament? The committee pays attention to who is available when, but also who will be available heading into the tournament.

This is why the question of will UK have Willis back by the time Selection Sunday is here is so crucial and if the uncertainty leads to the selection committee penalizing the Cats for it. Maybe they'll view UK as a 5 or 6 seed without Willis, despite having a resume worthy of more.

And frankly, if you watch Kentucky in games before Willis started and then after he was injured, you could also make a good case that's the body of work for a 5-6 seed. Based on how the Cats have looked recently without him, it's hard to argue with that, so don't be too surprised if UK's resume is worthy of a 4 seed but gets a 5-6 seed if Willis still isn't back by then.

On that same note, if by some miracle Willis returns this week and UK wins out, including the SEC Tournament, maybe the committee will view this as a team worthy of a 3 seed when everyone is healthy. As rare as that's happened this year between all of the injuries UK has endured, it's not out of the question.