Only in Kentucky can a 22-8 regular season, finishing up with a top 15 ranking, be considered a “down” year for a college basketball team. But that’s the stark reality of the thing. We have high expectations, and for most of us, anything less than at least a Final Four will be a letdown.
“Down” years aside, I think it is a bit premature to dismiss Kentucky as a potential NCAA tournament threat. Am I going to place money on a Kentucky championship this year? Well, probably not. But I think it would be a mistake to assume they are a non-issue. Consider these five points:
1. John Calipari. Look: we all know that Calipari is one of those coaches that people love to hate. I couldn’t stand the guy before he came to Kentucky, but I was thrilled when he got here. Love him or hate him, he’s taken his previous two teams to the Final Four and made them programs of national prominence. We can argue all day over how much involvement he has had in any underhanded recruiting issues (the NCAA has said none), but none of that changes the fact that his teams have been contenders because of good coaching. He’s got what it takes to get his team ready for a deep run in the tournament.
2. Points + Rebounds per Game. Kentucky is in the top 30 in both points and rebounds per game – 24th in points, and 26th in rebounds. That’s better than Ohio State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Pittsburgh, just to name a few.
3. Record Against Ranked Teams. Kentucky is 5-2 against teams ranked in the top 25 this year, with the two losses coming on the road to Vanderbilt and Florida. They beat a good Louisville team at Louisville by 15 points.
4. Home Crowd Advantage. Kentucky plays phenomenally at home. In fact, they haven’t lost there in over two years. Their Achilles heel this year has been road games in the SEC. They were embarrassed several times, including at Arkansas in late February. In the NCAA tournament, they won’t be playing any SEC road games. Of course, they also won’t be playing any home games at Rupp Arena. But anyone familiar with Kentucky basketball knows that when Kentucky plays neutral site games – particularly in the NCAA tournament – the crowd is almost always predominantly blue. This is one of the benefits of having a devoted fan base like Kentucky has. They follow you wherever you go. This season, in non-SEC road games and neutral site games, Kentucky is 5-2, with three of those wins against top 25 teams.
5. Overall Record. Kentucky’s overall record this season was 22-8, good enough to put them 15th in the final regular season AP poll. It doesn’t seem nearly as impressive, however, as Ohio State or Kansas’ 29-2. But consider this: of Kentucky’s eight losses, five of them were by 2 points or less. That means Kentucky is literally a mere 10 points away from being 27-3. Ten points. A few made free throws here, a few stops there, and Kentucky is probably ranked in the top 5, maybe even the top 3. All five of those close losses, by the way, were true road games – 4 in the SEC and one at UNC (who, by the way, is currently ranked 6th in the country).
All in all, I think that Kentucky’s performance this year, and their subsequent record, is deceptive. It only seems like they aren’t a legitimate NCAA threat this year. In fact, they are only 10 points away from being a top 3 or 4 team! For those of you who like the numbers games, their RPI this year is 12th best in the country, and their all important Strength of Schedule is also 12th – higher than Ohio State, Duke, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame – all of whom are in the discussion for number 1 seeds in the tournament.