After beginning the season ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25, Kentucky failed to receive a single vote in this week’s poll amid a 1-2 start to SEC play marked by an embarrassing 78-52 loss at Alabama on Saturday. At no. 46 in the NET with an 0-4 record in Quad 1 games, the Wildcats are a profound disappointment after returning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe along with other key players such as Sahvir Wheeler and Jacob Toppin from a 26-8 team.
On the heels of a stunning upset loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, frustration with 14th-year coach John Calipari is at an all-time high within the UK fanbase. The program’s last win in the Big Dance came in 2019, and it suddenly appears as if there are no guarantees that 2023 will bring one.
But two months remain until Selection Sunday and Kentucky still has time to turn things around. Five-star freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston have each shown encouraging flashes and should only improve as the season progresses. Sharpshooting guard CJ Fredrick should also return from a finger injury at some point during league play.
The range of outcomes for the Wildcats remains vast, and the saga of Calipari’s tenure is reaching a critical juncture to capture the sport’s collective attention for weeks to come. For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are offering their projections for how the rest of Kentucky’s season will play out.
Cats a bubble team, but makes Big Dance
- Predicted conference record: 10-8
- Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 9
Kentucky has been unimpressive all season and doesn’t seem on the verge of turning things around. The Wildcats just got blasted at Alabama by 26 points. They’re 3-3 in their last six games, still in possession of zero Quadrant 1 wins and down to 45th in the NET, 56th at BartTorvik.com and 62nd at KPI.
UK looks like a possible bubble team.
At this point, I’m skeptical the Wildcats will ever live up to the preseason expectations that had them ranked No. 1 at KenPom.com, in the top five basically everywhere and labeled as SEC favorites — but I still think they’ll land on the right side of the bubble and make the NCAA Tournament. And then … who knows? A year ago, UK had a great regular season followed by a terrible NCAA Tournament. This year could conceivably be the opposite — a disappointing regular season followed by a nice NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats still have the reigning CBS Sports National Player of the Year (Oscar Tshiebwe) and a projected lottery pick (Cason Wallace). It’s not the most talented roster John Calipari has ever assembled, but it’s still a more talented roster than most coaches have. Now it’s just a matter of figuring some things out, doing enough to make the field of 68, and then seeing if things can break the right way when that single-elimination tournament gets underway. — Gary Parrish
UK’s season stays bumpy but big wins will come
- Predicted conference record: 11-7
- Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 9
Although UK sits at 1-2 in the SEC — I expect it to be 2-2 after beating South Carolina at home on Tuesday night — that conference is going to be too tough to reasonably expect the Wildcats to pull off anything greater than a four-game winning streak between now and the postseason. There are seven road tests, plus a home game on Jan. 28 against No. 2 Kansas in the final edition of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. So, the losses will stack periodically. However, I expect Kentucky to find some resolution and stiffen its defense.
I expect it to notch a few critical Quad 1 victories and ensure it will dodge bubble talk by the second week of March. This is going to wind up being like the team in 2014 that was in the 8/9 game. Because with five losses already and probably at least another five coming between now and Selection Sunday, it’s optimistic to say Kentucky will earn a single-digit seed. I’ll say it does narrowly, though, thanks to a good showing in the SEC Tournament. And: Kentucky’s going to beat Kansas later this month. — Matt Norlander
Wildcats hit stride by February
- Predicted conference record: 13-5
- Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 6
There is no doubt that Kentucky has underperformed relative to preseason expectations and even relative to relaxed in-season expectations after early struggles prompted a hard reset. A 10-5 start to the season is flat underachieving at Kentucky even if you’ve got serious problems. There are reasons for cautious optimism, though. This is quietly one of the best 3-point shooting teams Calipari has fielded in UK, and Oscar Tshiebwe, for all his struggles, has continued to be nails pounding the offensive glass and producing second-chance opportunities.
Some minor tweaks for player roles and an increased focus on doing what he does well — launching 3-pointers, feeding Cason Wallace opportunities to set the table and getting Tshiebwe into favorable spots — could be enough to turn things around. There’s still some stuff on the margins that needs significant improvement — this team is awful at shooting free throws and it consistently runs into late-clock hero ball on offense — but I’ve seen enough positives to think it can be a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and work its way back into being a top-15 level team by the end of the regular season.. — Kyle Boone
UK in First Four, one of the last teams in Big Dance
- Predicted conference record: 9-9
- Predicted NCAA Tournament seed: No. 12 (First Four)
Kentucky plays an antiquated offensive style that is defined by a methodical pace and limited floor spacing. Without an elite defense that can consistently create transition opportunities, UK is getting bogged down in half-court sets and struggling to find a rhythm or build momentum. Schematically speaking, Calipari just doesn’t have it in him at this point in his career to pull the strings necessary to unlock the potential of this roster.
The SEC’s bottom feeders will ensure that the Wildcats pick up a fair number of league victories. But UK does not get a regular-season rematch with No. 4 Alabama, which puts a heavy emphasis on two games against No. 5 Tennessee and two games against No. 15 Arkansas. Outside of those contests, a single game with No. 21 Auburn and a Big 12/SEC Challenge game with No. 2 Kansas represents Kentucky’s only chance to add substance to his resume.
It’s hard to see the Wildcats doing anything better than maybe 2-4 or 3-3 against Arkansas (two games), Tennessee (two games), Auburn and Kansas. Kentucky looks destined for the NCAA Tournament bubble, and I’ll take a swing on the Wildcats landing a spot in the First Four as other blue bloods such as Indiana, Michigan State and UCLA have in recent years. — David Cobb