Entering the 2012-13 college basketball season, there were few teams receiving as much hype as the Kentucky Wildcats. After winning the 2012 national championship with a cast full of freshmen, coach John Calipari brought in yet another star-studded recruiting class for 2013.
As we approach March Madness, however, defending the title is an afterthought—Kentucky will not receive an NCAA tournament bid without a quality performance in the SEC tournament.
When asked if he believed Kentucky had finally discovered consistency, Wildcats center Willie Cauley-Stein was brutally honest (via The Courier-Journal).
We’ve been here before like this, so I’m not even going to try to answer that. I mean, we’ve been where it seemed like we (hit) a turning point and reverted right back. So, you know, I just don’t know.
That's the bottom line—no one knows.
For those outraged at Cauley-Stein's comments, don't be. He's justified in what he said and, prior to making such remarks, stated that he does believe in his team.
Furthermore, head coach John Calipari doesn't appear inclined to disagree.
I think there's some guys in there Willie doesn't trust. When they don't feel like playing, they don't play.
Can we now get this stuff going? Can we turn this? This is about when we did it two years ago. Those guys made an effort to listen, to say, ‘We’re gonna do what we’re asked to do. We’re gonna play at another level. We’re gonna take it up a notch. We’re gonna really fight like heck and play to win.’ This group can do the same thing.
There is no one in the nation that doubts Kentucky can turn it around. The question is, will they?
If they do, it'll start with developing consistency.
Inconsistency a Killer
Kentucky is currently 21-10 overall and 12-6 in a relatively weak SEC. As for how weak, note that only one team in the conference is ranked in the AP or USA Today Top 25 polls: No. 13 Florida.
Fortunately for their draft stock, the Wildcats defeated the Gators on Mar. 9. Unfortunately, Kentucky preceded that victory with losses at 19-12 Arkansas and 15-16 Georgia.
Furthermore, the Wildcats followed a five-game winning streak in early February with double-digit losses against Florida and Tennessee. This is the type of resume destruction that sinks teams come the NCAA tournament.
Playing without your superstar is another way to do so.
Nerlens Noel Factor
Even as the Kentucky Wildcats were struggling, center Nerlens Noel was performing at a National Player of the Year level. Averages of 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 4.4 blocks and 2.1 steals speak to that.
Unfortunately, Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury during the 24th game of the year. Kentucky's allure went with him.
Since Noel was injured, Kentucky is 4-4. Their losses include a 69-52 defeat at the hands of Florida, an 88-58 drubbing against Tennessee and double-digit losses at Arkansas and Georgia.
That's four losses by 17, 30, 13 and 10 points, respectively. That's an average margin of defeat of 17.5 points per game.
Only one of their opponents were ranked at the time they played. Worst of all, it's all happened during the final eight games of the season.
Kentucky is falling apart at the worst possible time.
SEC Tournament Impact
As it presently stands, the Kentucky Wildcats will face either 10th-seeded Vanderbilt or seventh-seeded Arkansas in the second round of the SEC tournament. If the Wildcats are lucky, they'll draw Arkansas and be presented with the opportunity to exact revenge for a 73-60 loss on Mar. 2.
Regardless of who they draw, Kentucky must win.
If the Wildcats are one-and-done in the SEC tournament, they can kiss their NCAA tournament dreams goodbye. If they win once and lose in the second round, their chances improve, but not by very much.
In other words, the Wildcats must make a deep tournament run.
Even if Kentucky were to get in at this stage, their seeding would likely be unfavorable. On the outside looking in of the Top 25, they're projected to be in the area of a seven-seed without winning the SEC tournament.
Making it to the SEC championship game, or even winning the tournament crown, would go a long way towards creating a more manageable path.
When it comes down to it, John Calipari's crew must win every game they play. There are no outings in which the Wildcats can afford to lose, as their NCAA tournament bid hinges upon their ability to prove their dominance in the weak SEC.
The defending national champions are in win-or-die mode—the story of tournament season.