Kentucky men's basketball: Wildcats case for No. 1 in the AP Poll

With a wild week of top 5 upsets, the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats might be ready to make a big jump to the top of the AP Poll after a win over Missouri with a maturing cast of talented freshmen.

Kentucky Wildcats guard Rob Dillingham (0)
Kentucky Wildcats guard Rob Dillingham (0) / Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

This week featured a lot of carnage at the top of college basketball. It began on Tuesday night when No. 2 Houston learned that the Big 12 was going to be a lot different than cruising through the AAC with a 57-53 loss to Iowa State. Then, later that same night, Nebraska shot the lights out in Lincoln to knock off No. 1 Purdue 88-72 behind Keisei Tominaga’s 19-point night. 

That opened the door a bit for Kentucky, which handled its business against Missouri 90-77, to jump in the AP poll. But Kansas, who handed the Wildcats the first of their two losses this year still sat at No. 3. Even Tennessee, a fellow SEC team stood in John Calipari’s path to the top spot in the country, but with Wednesday night came more upsets. 

Mississippi State knocked off No. 5 Tennessee 77-72 in Starkville, and UCF took down Kansas. The same night, No. 4 UConn, the only team ahead of Kentucky to win its early-week matchup, escaped Cincinnati with an 80-75 win over Xavier.

Maybe, all the losses make it easy for the AP voters, they can just keep everything the same and not penalize one specific team, but it feels significant that the freshman-led Wildcats have handled their business since a surprising loss to UNC Wilmington, while the most of the other top teams have hit speed bumps in conference play. 

Kentucky has another chance to prove itself on Saturday against Texas A&M in College Station, and if the Wildcats can pass that road test, they could make a strong argument to be ranked No. 1 in the country. 

Jumping Purdue and Houston

Purdue now has two losses, the same number as Kentucky, and while none are worse than Kentucky’s loss to UNCW, Kentucky’s freshmen just keep getting better, and Matt Painter’s Boilermakers have the same issues they’ve always had. 

The guard play is just not good enough for Purdue to be considered the best team in the country. On Tuesday, not only did they let Tominaga go off from three on the defensive end, but Fletcher Loyer, Braden Smith, and Lance Jones combined for nine turnovers and went 10-29 from the field. Kentucky has at least four guards better than a single guard on Purdue’s roster. 

Houston only has one loss, so maybe the Cougars have a case for the No. 1 spot, but Kelvin Sampson’s team hasn’t played a single ranked team and its best win is over Texas A&M. Should we be giving Houston the benefit of the doubt in its first year dealing with a Power Five conference schedule? Probably not. 

Kentucky ahead of Kansas?

Okay yes, Kansas beat Kentucky. So, this is a bit tougher argument to make. However, I think there’s a case. The Jayhawks just lost to UCF, which is 80th in Kenpom and 76th by the net rating. The other loss was a blowout to Marquette. However, Kansas has already beaten Kentucky, Tennessee, and UConn. 

The case for Kentucky to be ahead of Kansas hinges on the idea of improvement. Kentucky isn’t just one of the best teams in the country, the Wildcats are one of the most improved groups.

When Calipari’s team matched up against Bill Self’s unit, Kentucky didn’t have a healthy center on the roster, which is a problem against Hunter Dickinson. Now, the Wildcats have both Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso playing meaningful minutes. 

Also, in the Champions Classic, Kentucky played Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard just 16 minutes apiece. Now, Sheppard is averaging just over 25 minutes a game and Dillingham is at 22.3. 

Kentucky has learned to play at an even faster pace and with the second-highest-scoring offense, the Wildcats would fare a lot better against Kansas in a rematch. The growth of Cal’s team makes the Cats a compelling option for the No. 1 team in the country. 

The UConn problem

UConn beat Xavier on the road without a healthy Donovan Clingan and the Huskies' only losses are to Kansas and Seton Hall. Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer has emerged as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 15.4 points a game on 50/45/86 shooting splits while Tristen Newton has turned into a top 5 point guard in the country, and Alex Karaban is a deadly chess piece for Danny Hurley. 

Throughout Clingan's absence, Hurley has begun playing the 6-foot-8 Karaban, who is shooting 38% from three, at center, and now UConn looks primed to repeat as champs. There isn’t a good case that I can make for Kentucky to be ahead of the Huskies. I’m sure Calipari and the Cats would settle for No. 2 in the country. 

The Huskies host Georgetown on Sunday, so Kentucky has to hope that the reigning champs slip up at home.

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