- Seth Greenberg, ESPN Insider
The defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats took a huge step toward getting their ticket punched for the NCAA tournament with a win over Florida last weekend. The win gave the Wildcats something they were missing -- a top-5 BPI win. While the selection committee will evaluate Kentucky without Nerlens Noel, the reality is that two of the team's most significant wins -- against Florida and Missouri -- have taken place after Noel's injury.
It's by no means a sure thing that this win over the Gators will earn the Wildcats a spot in the at-large field, but there's a case to be made that this team deserves an NCAA tournament bid regardless of how the Wildcats finish in the SEC tournament. (You can see the semifinals and final Saturday and Sunday on ABC).
How do the Wildcats stack up against some fellow bubble teams, and can they win a game or two if they do make the field? Let's take a look.
Kentucky's nonconference strength of schedule is 72nd in the country. The Wildcats have been nearly perfect against teams outside the BPI top 100, with their lone loss coming against Georgia on the road. It should be noted that Georgia (BPI of 101) has nine SEC wins and owns two wins over UK's fellow bubble brother Tennessee.
So if you're looking for the biggest reason why Kentucky should receive an at-large bid, it's that the Wildcats have no bad losses -- unlike most of the other teams on the bubble. But there's other supporting evidence as well. The Wildcats finished second in the SEC and had a 2-1 record against the two teams from the conference that are considered locks to make the tournament. They played a competitive nonconference schedule, with games against Baylor, Duke, at Louisville and at Notre Dame, and opened the season against a Maryland team that many expected in the preseason would challenge for an upper-division finish in the ACC (even though it returned only one player who played any significant role last season).
When you compare Kentucky's résumé to those of fellow bubble teams Southern Mississippi, La Salle, Virginia and Saint Mary's, the Wildcats compare favorably.
• Southern Miss is 0-4 against the top 50 squads and 6-2 against the top 100. This, combined with the fact that the Eagles played 23 games against teams outside the top 100, puts USM a notch below Kentucky.
• La Salle has had an outstanding season, highlighted by wins over VCU and Butler, but if you look deeper at its résumé, you'll see that the composite number of its best wins is 125, compared to Kentucky's 68. Additionally, the Explorers have a bad loss to Central Connecticut State, which boasts an RPI of 264. Head-to-head, the quality of Kentucky's best wins combined with La Salle's bad losses distinguishes the Wildcats as more worthy for an at-large bid.
• Virginia is one of the more difficult teams to compare Kentucky against. The Cavaliers are an impressive 4-2 against the top 50 and 8-3 against the top 100, but they have played 20 games against teams below the top 100 and lost seven. It will be interesting to see how the committee evaluates the Cavs' three losses against CAA teams that have BPI ratings between 134 and 292 that came when Virginia was without senior point guard Jontel Evans. Remember that without Noel, the Wildcats were still able to defeat BPI number No. 4 Florida and BPI No. 22 Missouri.
• Saint Mary's earned its way to the championship game of the West Coast Conference for the fifth consecutive season. The Gaels have 27 wins, including at home against Creighton in BracketBusters, but there is little more to their résumé. They played 23 games against teams outside the top 100 and are 5-5 versus teams within it. The Gaels had three opportunities to beat Gonzaga but could not come away with a win. Kentucky has more top 100 wins, more wins against the tournament field and a better strength of schedule.
If the Wildcats earn a bid to the NCAA tournament, they have the potential to win multiple games. It all depends on which Wildcats team decides to show up. There is no denying Kentucky has the talent to win games in the tournament, but the question is whether it will have the maturity, trust and competitive spirit to advance. Can the young Wildcats get to the next play? Will they commit to getting stops? Can their guards make good decisions and have shot discipline?
Here's one big advantage working in Kentucky's favor: The NCAA tournament is played on a neutral court, but Big Blue Nation travels better than any other fan base in college basketball. Wherever the Wildcats play, it will be similar to a home game. I would not be shocked to see the Wildcats in Dayton playing in the opening round games Tuesday. This would not only ensure a sold-out arena but also be a great way to tipoff this season's NCAA tournament.
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