Can Kentucky Still Receive an At-Large Bid?
**stats correct through games played on Dec. 26**
Following a season-opening win against Morehead State on Nov. 25, Kentucky coach John Calipari warned of his team’s difficult upcoming schedule, saying, “Instead of being tested for corona, I should have been tested for drugs or something.”
More than a month later, Kentucky is still waiting on their second victory.
After dropping their last game of the calendar year to Lousiville on Saturday, the Wildcats will enter 2021 and SEC play with just a 1–6 record, the team’s worst seven-game start in over a century.
Following that most recent defeat, Calipari criticized himself for the “stupidest schedule” he had ever assembled, one which didn’t include enough winnable games where the team could build confidence.
Kentucky lost just six games all of last season. Now, the blue blood program is on life support. Is it possible that they’ve already flatlined? No team has ever rebounded from a 1–6 start to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, which, it goes without saying, is not great news.
Let’s review where the Wildcats stand and determine whether they can still find an at-large path into March Madness, or if they’ll need to win the SEC Conference Tournament in order to go dancing.
First, we need to examine Kentucky’s schedule thus far, which has been the subject of some debate. Calipari seems to place a fair amount of responsibility for his team’s tough start on the schedule, while many see that as just an excuse.
So, exactly how difficult has Kentucky’s schedule been, and how will these games be viewed by the committee?
The NCAA has yet to release its initial NET rankings for this season, which are used to sort games a team has played into quadrants. In lieu of this, I’ll be using an average of the resume-based Strength of Record metric and the predictive KenPom rankings as a proxy to evaluate each opponent similarly to the NET’s blended formula.
This certainly hasn’t been an easy schedule. In fact, KenPom ranks it as the 17th most difficult in the country out of 330 schools that have played D-I opponents so far.
The home loss to Notre Dame currently stands as a Q3 loss, which will hurt Kentucky the most on Selection Sunday, while the 17-point loss to Georgia Tech was easily the team’s worst performance of the year. To be clear, these are both games that a team of Kentucky’s caliber should be expected to win. However, neither loss is catastrophic — like, for example, Kentucky’s loss to Evansville a year ago.
If Kentucky had gone 3–3 over their last six, we wouldn’t be pushing the panic button. You’re just not supposed to lose all of them.
To a certain extent, Kentucky’s record is misleading. They have three one-possession losses and actually rank dead last in the country in KenPom’s luck stat, a measurement of how many games a team is expected to have won based on their game-by-game efficiencies. According to this metric, the Wildcats deserve about 2.3 more wins than they have, although that doesn’t get you very far on Selection Sunday.
Obviously, the win against Morehead State won’t count for much, meaning Kentucky will have to pick up several quality wins (and really just a bunch of wins in general) in SEC play to have any at-large hopes. But, if you’re asking whether Kentucky’s 1–6 record is disqualifying based on schedule, the answer is probably not.
Okay, fine. They’re still technically in the running. But how good of a team do we really think Kentucky is? After all, they’re 1–6!
It’s a fair question, and the answer may surprise you. Let’s go straight to the numbers. Here are Kentucky’s rankings in every advanced metric used by the selection committee that is currently available (no KPI):
Since Strength of Record is resume-focused, they’re going to be startlingly low there until they start racking up victories. However, predictive metrics see Kentucky in the 50s or 60s, indicating a team just on the outside looking into the 68-team field.
The magic question is, what does Kentucky need to do between now and Selection Sunday to get into that field?
To answer that, let’s use Wins Above Bubble, or WAB. WAB measures how many wins a team has compared to how many wins an average bubble team would be expected to have against that team’s schedule.
In Kentucky’s case, the Wildcats currently have a WAB of -3 according to Bart Torvik’s T-Rank, meaning that an average bubble team would be expected to have a 4–3 record against Kentucky’s schedule.
For Kentucky’s remaining games (18 SEC contests, including a currently postponed matchup against South Carolina, plus a home matchup with Texas) an average bubble team would be expected to go about 10–9.
This means that Kentucky would need to finish the regular season 13–6 (bringing them to 14–12 overall) to finish with a neutral WAB. It should be stated that the committee doesn’t actually use WAB, but this serves as a pretty good target for Calipari’s team (and, of course, an extra win or two on top of that would be massive).
Whether that record would be good enough depends on a lot of things (the quality wins Kentucky picks up along the way, the performance of other teams, the SEC conference tournament, etc.). However, at that 14–12 number, Kentucky will be at the very least in the discussion.
Can they get there? We’ll see. Kentucky is only projected to pick up nine or 10 wins out of their target 13. This is because, as we’ve discussed, they’re currently seen as slightly weaker than the average bubble team by predictive metrics.
But with a young team like Kentucky, there’s always a lot of potential to improve over the course of the season. We know the talent is there. If they start to get on a roll, watch out. It just has to happen now — there’s no more time to wait.
TeamRankings.com gives Kentucky a 22.2% chance to make the tournament, while Torvik is more pessimistic, giving the Wildcats just a 4.9% chance, most of which comes as an auto-bid by winning the SEC tournament.
I think the real figure is closer to the former than the latter, but it’ll be a tough road for Kentucky either way. They aren’t dead, though.