Kentucky basketball: Cats stretch run looks like a bumpy drive toward March

Kentucky guard CJ Fredrick drove to the basket against Florida.
Kentucky guard CJ Fredrick drove to the basket against Florida. /

It’s February and the Kentucky basketball team is traditionally fine-tuning for March, but this season’s drive toward tournament time has been anything but a smooth-running Wildcat machine and the stretch drive remains treacherous and unpredictable.

Kentucky (16-7, 7-3 in the Southeastern Conference) hasn’t had its team at full strength or on the same page the entire season but has managed to position itself for a drive that could make or break them for the NCAA tournament.

Improved defense has been a big reason for the Wildcats’ resurgence.

There is the chance they could miss the tournament altogether or come together and be a team easily capable of being a dangerous March team.

Associate head coach Orlando Antigua addressed that on Monday.

"“We know that games in the conference right now, at this point in the season, are all hard. We need to be at our best. I think we’re playing at a great pace and with great rhythm right now, and we want to continue that.”"

The Wildcats began the season ranked No. 4 in the preseason polls, but when the calendar turned to 2023 UK fell out of the top 25 after falling 89-75 to Missouri in the SEC opener on December 28.

Since then they have gone 8-3 including winning 6 of the past 7 games, the lone loss was a 77-68 setback to No. 9 Kansas.

Teetering on and off the bracketology first four out, first four in, first four bye,s etc. every game continues to be a bubble game for this Kentucky basketball team.

This week in the Coaches poll they received 11 votes for 34th place. In the Associated Press poll, they had 1 vote for a No. 44 ranking.

In the important NET Rankings, they hold firm at No. 31 but their resume still remains blemished by a stunning and embarrassing 71-68 loss to South Carolina which is the Gamecocks (8-15, 1-9) lone SEC victory. Also plaguing them is a 1-6 record in Quad 1 games.

Now 8 games remain for Kentucky to make some noise with some impressive wins, but the way they are viewed nationally appears that they can’t afford to lose many if any remaining games. One additional help is the SEC Tournament from March 8-12 takes place in Nashville where Big Blue Nation fans can flock to and lend support and wins.

KenPom has Kentucky going 4-4 to finish the regular season, but all of the games are decided by less than four points except for Vanderbilt where Kentucky should win by 10 points.

The road ahead is paved with quality wins beginning Tuesday night when Arkansas (16-7 5-5) comes to Rupp Arena for a 9 pm tip.

The Razorbacks have won two in a row and while they are 11-1 at home they are just 1-5 on the road and 1-5 in Quad 1 contests. The teams will meet in the regular season on March 4 in Bud Walton Arena. Their current Net Ranking is No. 29.

Arkansas has won the last two matchups after UK had won eight in a row.

On Saturday the Wildcats head to Athens to tangle with Georgia (14-9, 4-6) where the Bulldogs are tough at home with an 11-1 home record, but KenPom has the Cats leaving with a 73-69 win. UK has won 15 of the past 16 meetings with the lone loss being a 63-62 defeat in Athens in 2021. A UK win doesn’t move the needle with Georgia sitting at No. 126 in the Net Ranking.

The following four games will make or break the Cats.

Mississippi State (15-8, 3-7) will welcome UK next Tuesday to the Hump where the Bulldogs are 9-3. The Wildcats have won 17 of the last 18 games except for a 74-73 loss in 2021 in the SEC Tournament.

Tennessee comes to Rupp next Saturday and Kentucky will have another shot at knocking off the No. 6 (AP poll) and No. 5 (Coaches poll) ranked Vols again. Tennessee (19-4, 8-2) is No. 2 in the Net Rankings so a big opportunity for the Cats as the Vols are just 4-2 on the road.

After beating Florida 72-67 at home Saturday Kentucky will venture to Gainsville on Feb. 22. The Gators (13-10, 6-4) are 8-3 at home but UK has won 8 of the past 9 games with 2021 again being the year of the lone loss. They currently rank No. 43 in the Net Rankings.

When Kentucky basketball hosts No. 25 Auburn (17-6, 7-3) on Feb. 25 it will be another chance to beat a ranked opponent and could be pivotal for SEC Tournament seedings. Both the Cats and Tigers are tied for third place in the conference at the moment and the good news for UK is Auburn is just 4-4 on the road and sits No. 30 in the Net Rankings.

That leaves Vanderbilt (11-12, 4-6) on March 1 a team Kentucky has already beaten 69-53 in Nashville last week.

Buckle up for the wild ride.