You hear about Kansas and Baylor, Gonzaga and Maryland, San Diego State and Dayton.
They’re the teams everyone seems to be highest on in March, teams that can get to the Final Four in Atlanta and cut down the nets the first week in April. They either have strong metrics or impressive résumés. Some have both.
Kentucky has been left out of that mix, still considered by most Bracketologists as a four-seed. Maybe it’s the two bad losses, to Evansville and Utah, that are holding back the Wildcats. The advanced statistics aren’t in their favor. They are ranked 26th by KenPom. Their offense is rated 32nd in efficiency, their defense 38th.
Here is the number I value: 24. That’s wins. In 29 games. That includes victories over preseason No. 1 Michigan State, and highly regarded Louisville, Texas Tech, Auburn and LSU.
Since the turn of the new year, John Calipari’s team has lost just twice — at Auburn and at the buzzer against South Carolina. It is surging, getting better as the NCAA Tournament nears. It has scoring depth (four players averaging at least 11.5 points per game), a dominant paint presence (Nick Richards is one of the more improved players in the country) and experience (Calipari isn’t relying on a team of freshmen for a change).
The three-headed backcourt of Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans are all dynamic in their own way, each capable of taking over a game. Quickley, one of four sophomore starters, has become Kentucky’s best 3-point shooter, hitting 42 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc and leads the team at 16.3 points per game. Hagans is a tenacious defender and the Wildcats’ premier playmaker, while Maxey, a five-star freshman from Texas, might have the most talent of them all, as his two-way ability would suggest.
In time, we will know more if this team was undervalued, if the metrics and advanced statistics were a hint of a March disappointment or an anomaly. This much I know: The Wildcats are 12-1 in their past 13 games and has won five of their past six against Quadrant 1 opponents. Kentucky is beating NCAA Tournament teams. If it does get a four-seed, I can’t think of any No. 1 that would be happy to see the SEC regular season champions in their region.
Don’t count them out
Sometimes, we forget about what a long season it is. That a shaky November or December doesn’t mean anything come February. That coaches and players are capable of bouncing back, responding to poor stretches. Look at UCLA. Look at Texas. Look at Providence.
These are three teams that were buried, given up on, only for them to pull an Undertaker and enter March very much in play for an invite to the dance.
The most unlikely was UCLA. The Bruins lost non-conference home games to Cal State Fullerton and Hofstra. They started 1-3 in the Pac-12. New coach Mick Cronin was already getting buried. He’s the front-runner for Coach of the Year honors in the league now that UCLA has won seven straight games, sweeping Arizona and Colorado, and leads the conference.
Providence dropped consecutive games to Penn, Long Beach State and College of Charleston in November. It was 6-6 in the Big East after getting manhandled by St. John’s only to rip off commanding victories over Creighton, Seton Hall, Marquette and Villanova. UMass grad transfer Luwane Pipkins has gone from a benched disappointment to providing much-needed punch off the bench. Coach Ed Cooley is no longer being questioned.
Shaka Smart wasn’t on the hot seat a few weeks ago. His job was basically considered open following Texas’ 29-point loss at under-.500 Iowa State that dropped his team to 14-11. The question was who would take it. But after four straight wins, highlighted by road victories over West Virginia and Texas Tech, Texas can still finish third in the Big 12, and the Longhorns are in position to reach the tournament for the third time in five years under Smart.
Game of the Week
No. 12 Villanova at No. 13 Seton Hall, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m., FS1
Newark will be rocking Wednesday night. Seton Hall can clinch its first Big East outright regular season title in 27 years, and the Pirates will get the chance to do it on Senior Night, against rival Villanova no less. The evening figured to be emotional already, as All-American Myles Powell and fellow starters Romaro Gill and Quincy McKnight will play their final home game, but the stakes were just raised even higher after St. John’s stunning upset of No. 10 Creighton.
1: Kansas, Baylor, Gonzaga, San Diego State
2: Dayton, Seton Hall, Maryland, Florida State
3: Creighton, Kentucky, Villanova, Duke
4: Louisville, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan State
Up: Michigan State
Is anyone really surprised to see this team surging as March arrives? This is what Tom Izzo does. His Spartans, the nation’s preseason No. 1 who fell out of the Top 25 a few weeks ago, always seem to improve and be at their best when their best is needed. Now, as the regular season reaches its final week, No. 24 Michigan State trails ninth-ranked Maryland by just a game atop the Big Ten after manhandling the Terrapins in College Park on Saturday night for its fourth win in five games.
Up: James Bouknight
Barring a run to the AAC Tournament title, UConn will rejoin the Big East coming off four straight years of missing the NCAA Tournament. But it will enter with one of the league’s better players. The 6-foot-4 Bouknight, a freshman from Brooklyn, has come on of late, scoring in double figures in 11 straight games and averaging 18 points per game over that span. It’s no coincidence UConn has won seven of those games and looks like it will at least make the NIT.
This recent skid isn’t too stunning, not if you have been paying close attention to Duke. Sure, three losses in four games — all on the road, at N.C State, Wake Forest and Virginia — for a team that was 22-3 before this stretch may seem like a surprise. But look closer. The struggles arrived before this. They really began on Feb. 4 when the Blue Devils nearly lost at woeful Boston College. They should’ve lost to North Carolina in their next game, but the Tar Heels choked a 13-point lead in the final 5:41 of regulation and missed 17 free throws. Now Duke did win the next two in more impressive fashion, knocking off sixth-ranked Florida State and blowing out Notre Dame, but there were pre-existing issues there. Now Duke finds itself in fourth place in the ACC with two games to go in the watered-down conference that was supposed to be a three-team league.
The program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 29 years seemed like a certainty weeks ago. Now, it’s hanging in the balance, Rutgers experiencing the precarious nature of the bubble with the arrival of March after losing four of its past five games and three in a row. The Scarlet Knights’ inability to win away from the RAC — they are 1-10 in road and neutral-site games — could be their undoing. Then again, they beat Maryland on Tuesday at home for a fourth Quadrant 1 win and Steve Pikiell’s team should at least reach Dayton for the First Four — a NET rating of 35 certainly helps — even if it fails to win at Purdue on Saturday or advance in the Big Ten Tournament.