Close games will be the “new normal’ for Kentucky Wildcats basketball

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Jan 15, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Julius Mays (34) celebrates after hitting a three point shot against the Tennessee Volunteers in the second half at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Tennessee 75-65. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t pretty and it was a lot closer than expected, but apparently, games like last night are going to be the “new normal” for the University of Kentucky basketball team.  John Clay says that Kentucky fans need to accept the fact that more games than not will be nail-biters and John Calipari even alluded to it in his postgame comments:

 

“I came to this conclusion, in the last seven or eight years I’ve coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people,” said Calipari after his Cats pulled out a 75-65 win over visiting Tennessee. “This ain’t going to be one of them.”

No it ain’t.

This might be “normal” for the rest of college basketball, but after being spoiled here for the past three seasons, especially last season, this is a jarring normal for the Big Blue Nation.

Then again, after a year of laughers, the law of averages said we should be prepared for a season full of dramatics.

“Every game we’re going to be in is going to be a dog fight,” Calipari said. “Instead of going crazy about it, how about just accepting it, right?”

 

And face it, this is what college basketball is going to be this year.  There is no dominant team.  I know that people are not happy that Kentucky struggled with Tennessee, but when you consider an unranked Wisconsin team marched into Bloomington and knocked off #2 Indiana … well, it’s that kind of season.

 

Jan 2, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) dribbles the ball in the game against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The unlikely hero last night was Kyle Wiltjer.  After an atrocious game at Vanderbilt and barely seeing the floor against Texas A&M, Kyle Wiltjer turned in his most complete performance of the year.  Wiltjer had a Nerlens Noel-like stat line of 17 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 assists.  More importantly at crunch time, Wiltjer took charge and drove aggressively for two straight layups.  And for the most part, Wiltjer played a solid defensive game and was as physical as I have seen him this year.  Kyle talks about his game:

 

Jan 15, 2013; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts to a call in the second half of the game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena. Kentucky defeated Tennessee 75-65. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, this was a game that Kentucky was favored to win big, so we should not be shocked Kentucky won. This was the first double digit win over a major conference foe on the year and may be a sign that Kentucky is rounding the corner. Whether it is or not, the damage has been done and Kentucky finds itself on the bubble in most NCAA projections.  Joe Lunardi has Kentucky as one of the last teams in and have them as a number-10 seed and in an ESPN insider article, explains his logic about how Kentucky is at risk for missing the tournament:

Here are several reasons why Kentucky is in danger of missing the 2013 NCAA tournament:

• Kentucky sits at No. 42 on our latest S-Curve. This is probably a bit generous, based more on recent history and potential than actual accomplishment. Regardless, that position means the Wildcats were just one spot away from a First Four game in our latest bracket. Only the Dayton business community would be happy with that outcome, I suspect.

• The Wildcats are 1-1 in early SEC play and needed a disputed bucket to escape Vanderbilt before being outclassed at home by Texas A&M. With four of their next six games away from Rupp Arena, there’s every chance the Wildcats will hit the halfway mark of their league schedule not much better than .500 in the SEC. In a fairly weak conference, they’ll need to be well above that by March.

• A week ago, UK was on my list of national leaders in “fake wins.” Of the Wildcats’ 10 victories this season, just two — Maryland (in Brooklyn) and at Vanderbilt — have come over non-guarantee opponents. That means a 10-5 record for the Wildcats, which is already borderline, is more like a 2-5 record in the eyes of the selection committee. There’s a ton of work to do in a conference that suddenly presents more opportunities for “bad” losses than it does “good” wins.

• The RPI, typically so kind to Kentucky, is heading the opposite direction in 2013. UK’s current number is 68 and, worse, the best RPI calculators have the Wildcats landing no better than the low 50s two months from now. Without a couple of serious NCAA-level wins on its résumé, Kentucky is going to generate lots of bubble talk with that kind of profile.

No matter which “expert” you talk to, Kentucky’s season will boil down to four games:  @ Ole Miss on 1/29, @ Florida on 2/12, vs Missouri on 2/23 and vs Florida on 3/9.  If Kentucky can win at home, they should be okay, and if they can go 3-1 or even 4-0 in these games, we can end this silly bubble talk forever.

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