FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Yeah, so, about that NCAA Tournament bubble talk for Kentucky. Scratch that.
In fact, after the Wildcats washed out the bitter taste of a four-game losing streak by beating consecutive top-50 opponents — Alabama at home Saturday, then a dominant road win at Arkansas on Tuesday — they’re not just in the Big Dance, but climbing seed lines.
Despite only a so-so record (19-9 overall, 8-7 in SEC play), the Wildcats are now trending toward a No. 5 seed in most projections. They have five RPI top-50 wins and seven KenPom top-50 victories.
Shelby Mast, bracketologist for USA Today (and his own site, bracketwag.com), has Kentucky a 5 seed as of Wednesday morning. He and colleague Scott Gleeson tagged the surging Cats a dark horse Final Four contender after the blitz in Fayetteville.
Over the last two games, coach John Calipari seems to have finally settled on a winning combination of players: Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt. Dominating the minutes Tuesday, that quintet outscored and outrebounded the Razorbacks by itself.
“I’m slowly starting to figure out this team,” Calipari said afterward.
If that’s true and Kentucky is beginning to click, what is the NCAA Tournament seed ceiling? Three regular-season games remain, all against KenPom top-100 teams (the Wildcats already have a dozen top-100 wins this season), including No. 41 Missouri at home on Saturday and at No. 28 Florida a week later.
What if — and this remains a big if — UK swept those games and won the SEC Tournament, conceivably beating two or three more top-50 teams along the way? That would mean an eight-game win streak heading into Selection Sunday and close to double-digit quality wins for the season.
We reached out to Mast to see where he thinks that would put the Wildcats. Depending on how results elsewhere shake out, he figures that could of run would probably merit a No. 3 seed.
That’s significant, because threes and fours have historically won 84.1 and 80.3 percent of the time in the first round, while those numbers drop significantly to 64.4 and 62.9 percent for fives and sixes. In other words, get above the 5-seed line and improve your odds of avoiding an early upset loss.
Also, by vaulting up out of the 8/9 range, Kentucky could avoid playing a No. 1 seed in the Round of 32. With this young, tall and talented team that is only scratching the surface of what it could become, extending the season into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament might make almost anything possible.
How’s that for a change in outlook in the matter of just seven days?