On Thursday, Joe Lunardi—ESPN’s resident “Bracketologist”—released his most recent NCAA Tournament bracket prediction. To the surprise of many, including many UK fans, his updated bracket moved Kentucky from a #4 seed to a #2 seed. Such a move was reflection of UK’s improved play over the last couple of games, not necessarily a signal of Lundari’s thoughts on where Kentucky will finish the season.
Paul Jordan wrote on Friday how Kentucky could earn that #2 seed in the Tournament. In short, his three keys were defend Rupp, beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and win 2 of 3 from Florida and Missouri.
Kentucky has played 4 conference games, including the last three, at home. They are 4-0 in those games, the most recent being a 79-54 beat down against Georgia on Saturday. But the ‘Cats are leaving the friendly confines of Rupp. Four of their next 5 games are on the road, beginning with LSU on Tuesday night. LSU is one of the few teams that can match-up well with Kentucky inside. Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey average a combined 14.5 rebounds a game. Mickey also averages 3.6 blocks a game. And while LSU has a few head scratching losses (at home to Tennessee by 18 points), they beat Missouri in Baton Rouge last Tuesday. Statistically, there isn’t much difference between the two teams.
Next Saturday, Kentucky travels to Columbia to face Missouri. Once considered a possible sleeper to win the SEC, Missouri is 3-3 in conference play, with losses to Georgia, @Vandy, and @LSU. Tuesday night, Missouri travels to Fayetteville to play Arkansas in what could very well end up being their fourth conference loss. Indeed, Missouri is in danger of falling near the bottom of SEC standings; after Arkansas on Tuesday, they face Kentucky and Florida (in Gainesville). Three straight losses is not outside the realm of possibility.
Following those two road games, the ‘Cats travel back home to face Ole Miss before heading back out for road games against Mississippi State and Auburn. Should Kentucky beat LSU and Missouri (neither one a sure thing) they should beat Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn. If that happens, Kentucky would have an 8-game winning streak heading into a Saturday night game versus Florida.
Florida, of course, has the potential to not only come into Rupp undefeated in conference play but would be riding a 16-game winning streak of its own. Currently ranked sixth, Florida would likely find itself in the Top 4 (if not Top 3) by February 15. Kentucky, too, certainly would be ranked in the Top 10.
A win over Florida would give Kentucky sole possession in the SEC (based on head-to-head), while a Florida win would give them a comfortable 2-game lead heading into the final weeks of the season.
But more importantly, a win over Florida would justify Joe Lunardi’s #2 seed. A win over Florida would add another quality win to UK’s resume, which at the moment pretty much only includes beating Louisville. A win over Florida would further prove Kentucky is the title contender everyone believed they were when the season began.
The danger of course, is they get caught looking ahead, losing when they shouldn’t. Opportunity awaits Kentucky in 3 weeks. But they have to get there first.