Author: Paul Ables

Twitter: @PaulAbles

[dropcap2]J[/dropcap2]ohn Calipari’s young Wildcat squad has struggled mightily this season and took a major step backwards after this week’s loss at Alabama. For a team who was already on the NCAA tournament bubble, they suffered a defeat that they could not afford at the time. What that game did is put an incredible amount of pressure on Kentucky throughout the remainder of their SEC schedule.

From here on out, there is no margin for error. Playing in a weak SEC with very few chances to gain quality wins, this squad needs to figure things out right now. It is imperative that they win all of the games that they are supposed to, while also winning a couple games that they will not be favored in. Otherwise, it is a real possibility that the Wildcats are on the outside looking in come March.

With that being said, let us observe the remaining schedule and layout what Kentucky has to do from here on out, along with some alternate scenarios that will arise based on their performance during the rest of SEC play.

Next 5 Games: Must-Win’s

01/26/13 vs. LSU Lexington, Ky. 4:00 p.m. ET
01/29/13 at Ole Miss Oxford, Miss. 9:00 p.m. ET
02/02/13 at Texas A&M College Station, Texas 6:00 p.m. ET
02/05/13 vs. South Carolina Lexington, Ky. 9:00 p.m. ET
02/09/13 vs. Auburn Lexington, Ky. 4:00 p.m. ET

Kentucky is currently halfway through their “easy” part of the conference schedule, a stretch consisting of 10 games in which UK would be favored in every single one. This was supposed to be a stretch of growth and improvement for the team. It would give the Cats plenty of time to prepare for the rigors of their second-half schedule, which consists of teams like Florida, Missouri and Mississippi State.

Instead, UK is only 3-2 midway through this early-season stretch and have suffered bad losses at home versus Texas A&M and on the road against Alabama. Each loss will hurt the Cats on Selection Sunday and puts even more pressure on these remaining five games to close out this “easy” part of the SEC schedule.

-Their next game at home versus Louisiana State is a MUST-WIN for the Cats. The Tigers are one of the worst teams in the conference and should be completely dominated by UK. Kentucky needs to dominate this game in every way possible to build some confidence moving forward.

-The Wildcats then travel on the road for games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. What initially appeared as two easy games now seem much more difficult and could be difficult to navigate through for Calipari’s squad. The Ole Miss Rebels are one of the country’s best surprise teams and are undefeated in conference play.

-Meanwhile, Texas A&M already beat UK at Rupp Arena and can go for the season sweep in the comfortable confines of their own arena. Kentucky is a better team but they cannot afford to let Elston Turner go off for 40 points like they did a few weeks ago.

-If Kentucky can somehow win both of these games on the road, they stand a good chance at completing this stretch with a safe 5-0 record. The two concluding games are at home against South Carolina and Auburn. Each team has the potential to play UK close, but the Cats have a lot to play for and should take care of business at home.

Best-Case Scenario: UK plays with a sense of urgency & wins all five games for much-needed momentum.        Team Record: 17-6 (8-2 SEC)

Worst-Case Scenario: UK loses both road games & drops another surprise loss at home to either USC or Auburn.    Team Record: 14-9 (5-5 SEC)

Most-Likely Scenario: UK wins all three home games & splits the road games, avenges earlier loss to A&M.      Team Record: 16-7 (7-3 SEC)

Next 4 Games: Murderer’s Row

02/12/13 at Florida Gainesville, Fla. 7:00 p.m. ET
02/16/13 at Tennessee Knoxville, Tenn. 1:00 p.m. ET
02/20/13 vs. Vanderbilt Lexington, Ky. 8:00 p.m. ET
02/23/13 vs. Missouri Lexington, Ky. 9:00 p.m. ET

This is the part of the schedule that should put dread and fear in the hearts of every Kentucky fan. This is the “make-it-or-break-it” stretch of games that will likely determine the team’s NCAA tournament fate. It also has importance because of how it will affect seeding in the SEC tournament.

-Florida on the road could be a blowout. By blowout, I am referring to a devastating and humiliating loss that could destroy any remaining shred of credibility this team has left. The Gators are riding high and are heads and shoulders above the rest of the SEC. If they come out and shred Kentucky, like they did to Missouri by 30 points, then the Wildcats’ reputation will be ruined.

-At the same time, this Florida road game could single-handedly keep UK in the NCAA tournament. It would be one of the more impressive wins by any team in the nation and would rejuvenate confidence in the squad. Florida would also be in a tough spot, as their only remaining shot of beating Kentucky comes in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.

-Kentucky then plays on the road against the Volunteers. It is always a difficult road environment for the team and Jarnell Stokes & Co. will be ready for a battle. Tennessee played UK close and lost largely due to foul trouble and poor shooting. This will be a war for Kentucky.

-The team does get a reprieve in the middle of this stretch by playing Vanderbilt in Lexington. With the Cats already defeating the Commodores at Memorial Gym, this should be an easy victory. However, Vandy plays Kentucky tough and they can take advantage of a Wildcat team who could be reeling from back-to-back road defeats.

-Closing out this difficult stretch is a home primetime game versus Missouri. The SEC’s second or third-best team would be playing for the first time in Rupp Arena as a conference member. Hopefully that rattles the team, but Phil Pressey will likely have his squad ready to go. Kentucky MUST win this game at all costs. It will be on primetime TV as part of College GameDay. This will be one of Kentucky’s last chances to impress voters nationwide, and one of their few chances at garnering a signature win.

Best-Case Scenario: UK shocks the nation, beats Florida, UT and Mizzou. Goes on a season-changing streak.  Team Record: 21-6 (12-2 SEC)

Worst-Case Scenario: UK gets routed by Gators, fall to Tennessee & Missouri but beat Vandy. Cats off the bubble.  Team Record: 15-12 (6-8 SEC)

Most-Likely Scenario: UK splits road games, beats Vandy, then plays their best game of the year to beat Mizzou. Team Record: 19-8 (10-4 SEC)

Final 4 Games: Playing On the Bubble

02/27/13 vs. Mississippi State Lexington, Ky. 8:00 p.m. ET
03/02/13 at Arkansas Fayetteville, Ark. 4:00 p.m. ET
03/07/13 at Georgia Athens, Ga. 7:00 p.m. ET
03/09/13 vs. Florida Lexington, Ky. 12:00 p.m. ET

 

Kentucky’s final stretch of regular season games is the wild-card part of the schedule. On paper, they all seem like winnable games. Yes, that includes the Florida game because it’s at home and the Cats will be pumped and ready to go. However, there are also some potential trap games here that could take UK out of the NCAA tournament completely.

-UK concludes a three-game home stand versus Mississippi State. With Kentucky fresh off a tough home game against Missouri, and with their eyes set on Florida, the Wildcats might overlook a pesky Bulldog team. Sure, they are currently 7-9 and should be one of the worst teams in the conference. However, they always play UK close and are a physical team to play against.

-If all goes well and the Cats win against the Bulldogs, they enter a two-game road trip with some momentum on their side. Kentucky will play at Arkansas, who is 11-6 on the year and are a decent team. Unfortunately, this Wildcat team doesn’t have Patrick Sparks available for this one (he drained seven 3′s once against the Razorbacks). I expect this to be a tough road environment and it could easily be a loss as UK could potentially be limping towards the finish line.

-Kentucky then goes on the road to play Georgia. Mark Fox will have his team ready for a big game, but I expect the Cats to play one of their best games of the year on this night. Georgia is currently 7-10 and has a severe talent gap when compared to UK. This should be a nice final road before concluding the year back in Rupp Arena.

-The Cats’ home finale comes against the league’s best team in Florida. The Gators will likely win the SEC regular season title and will be prepared for a fight against Kentucky. As for John Calipari’s squad, this is a must-win if they failed to defeat Florida or Missouri earlier in the schedule. Either way, this is a toss-up but would be a huge win for UK. It would propel them full steam ahead into the SEC conference tournament, so expect the team’s best effort on this day.

Best-Case Scenario: UK beats Mississippi State but falls in a loss at Arkansas. They beat GA & Florida.               Team Record: 24-7 (15-3 SEC)

Worst-Case Scenario: UK falls to Mississippi St and Arkansas, beats Georgia, gets routed again by Gators.         Team Record: 16-15 (7-11 SEC)

Most-Likely Scenario: UK beats both Bulldog teams and Arkansas, closes the season by losing a nail-biter to FL. Team Record: 22-9 (13-5 SEC)

 

As you can see, this season can go in a lot of directions. The best-case scenario includes a sweep of Florida, wins at Tennessee and against Missouri, and just one trap-game loss to close out SEC play strong. They would be a lock for the NCAA tournament and would likely end up as a 4- or 5-seed.

By following the worst-case scenario, they would clearly miss March Madness and might not even make the NIT. It would be an incredibly embarrassing year for John Calipari and might negatively affect his recruiting moving forward. The players would be a national laughingstock and there could be an extreme mass exodus following the year.

In what I consider to be the most-likely scenario, I still expect the Cats to play fairly well in conference play. Granted, I expect them to lose both games to Florida as I just do not see a way for us to slow them down. But I think Kentucky’s players will be amped up for the College GameDay matchup and will defeat the Missouri Tigers for a key signature win. They will take care of business the rest of the way and should make the NCAA tournament, albeit as a bubble team.

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