When Kentucky opened SEC play with a loss at Alabama, it immediately made the Wildcats’ outlook for SEC play look less than encouraging.
That’s because the Crimson Tide were thought to be a team that would finish in the bottom half of what was going to be a stacked league, so losing a game like that led to a lot of projections having Kentucky lose 7+ games in league play.
Things have changed a lot since that early January setback in Tuscaloosa. It turns out Alabama is one of the league’s better teams, as they now sit at 4-3 and in a tie for fifth place in the conference and still very much in the running for a double-bye in the SEC Tournament. That loss at Alabama is also a Quadrant I loss, so it’s not a bad loss by any means.
But more importantly, the Wildcats have taken their game to another level, which now has them in position to win the league’s regular-season title, again.
Now sitting at 6-1 in SEC play, Kentucky has won seven straight games overall and are right behind LSU and Tennessee (7-0) atop the league. Kentucky hosts LSU and Tennessee in the coming weeks, so the Cats have a chance to be atop the league standings going into the final week of February.
Saying this, the projections from various predictive models expect the Wildcats to lose at least three more games the rest of the way. KenPom is projecting a 24-7 regular-season record for Kentucky, meaning they expect four more losses.
Part of that is they have four games left in which Kentucky has less than a 60-percent chance to win: At Florida (56%), at Mississippi State (56%), vs. Tennessee (55%) and at Tennessee (30%).
ESPN BPI is projecting a 24.7-6.3 record, which means they’re leaning toward a 25-6 finish.
TeamRankings is projecting a 24.5-6.5 record, so they think it’s a true toss-up as to whether the Cats get 24 or 25 wins. They are also projecting a 13.5-5.5 SEC record, which would be second behind Tennessee at 15.3-2.7.
The way Kentucky is playing right now, a 24-7 finish would feel like a disappointment. Sure, they’ll probably lose at Tennessee, while upcoming road games at Florida and Mississippi State are tricky as well. And there’s no certainty that Kentucky will be able to top Tennessee in Rupp Arena, though the recent trends for both teams favor the Wildcats in that matchup.
Auburn will also be a tricky game in Rupp if Austin Wiley is back by then. Sure, Kentucky won in their building, but the Tigers are a different team with Wiley roaming the paint.
As good as Ole Miss was at the beginning of league play, they’ve fallen on hard times lately, and that early March game in Oxford now looks very winnable for the Wildcats.
All told, the way the schedule sets up the rest of the way, we should expect two more losses for the Wildcats, but it’s perfectly set up for them to come out of the regular season with 25 or even 26 wins.
As challenging as this league is combined with Kentucky’s great non-conference wins over Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina, that ‘should’ be more than enough for a 2 seed with an outside shot at a 1.
If Kentucky has just two more losses and wins the SEC Tournament, that should be plenty enough to get a 1 seed.
But if the projections hold up and Kentucky finishes with a 24-7 record, then they open themselves up to fall to a 3 or even 4 seed, depending on how other teams finish their respective seasons.
For now, I’m going with a 25-6 finish.