A perplexing Kentucky season became considerably more complex on February 12, when freshman center Nerlens Noel was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Kentucky was just starting to show signs of achieving the preseason promise that caused the Wildcats to be ranked No. 3 in the preseason Associated Press poll when Noel went down. Though certainly not a top-10 team at that time, the Wildcats seemed to be edging their way toward respectability, doing enough to put themselves in position to land an NCAA tournament berth.
But the loss of Noel changed everything. Not only does Kentucky need to find a way to make up for the loss of the improving 6'11" Noel, but the NCAA tournament selection committee's assessment of the Wildcats started virtually anew.
As of February 20, Kentucky probably would not make the 68-team NCAA tournament field as an at-large team, which puts intense pressure on just a handful of remaining games for Kentucky to change its status in the committee's eyes.
Since the NCAA tournament field was expanded from 48 to 64 teams in 1985, only four teams have failed to make the tournament field the year after it won it all, and one of those was because the school was on probation.
Wildcat fans would not be pleased if Kentucky became the fifth. So they, like many others, are contemplating what it will take for Kentucky to make the field in terms of the remaining schedule and the Wildcats' ability to adjust and improve.
The NCAA tournament selection committee picks teams based on the personnel that will be available in the postseason.
For Kentucky, that means a team without Nerlens Noel. The 24 games Kentucky played with Noel are not completely dismissed, but the games without Noel are given much more weight.
One other thing to remember is that the final three or four teams likely to make the field today probably wouldn't make it when the selections are announced because upsets in conference tournaments are likely to knock out the final few at-large teams.
Kentucky's RPI ranking of 47 (as of February 20) is good enough for inclusion, but a 4-5 record on the road and an 0-4 record against teams currently ranked in the top 50 of the RPI are black marks that would keep the Wildcats out of the tournament at this point.
More important is the fact that Kentucky is 1-1 since the loss of Noel. The 30-point shellacking against a mediocre Tennessee team was a major blow in the selection committee's eyes, and the narrow, four-point home win over a Vanderbilt team that sits near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings did not help.
During a teleconference the day after Noel was injured, Mike Bobinski, chair of the NCAA tournament selection committee, said, according to USA Today:
The reality is we have about [four-and-a-half] weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and to see how they perform without [Noel] in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story, I think, of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky.
Committee members have discretion to use subjective factors as well as the numbers to determine selections, and with so few games left to assess the Wildcats, the eye test will be important. How the Wildcats look when they win or lose may be nearly as significant as the result.
How much Kentucky can impress the selection committee depends to some degree on the remaining opponents.
The Wildcats have at least six games left, including at least one game in the SEC tournament. The Wildcats need impressive wins and they need road wins. They have a chance for both.
The Saturday, February 23 game against Missouri comes pretty close to a must-win. The Tigers have a good RPI (33) and are coming off an impressive victory over Florida. But they have been lousy on the road, giving Kentucky reason to believe it can beat the Tigers at Rupp Arena for its first win over a top-50 team. That would be big.
Road games against Arkansas and Georgia are winnable games against good-but-not-great teams, and winning either would be a big help because the committee gives considerable weight to road victories.
Of course, if the Wildcats should beat Florida at home in its final scheduled game on March 9, that would leave a lasting impression on the committee. Winning that game would be a lot to ask, though.
Kentucky is currently third in the SEC standings. Although the selection committee does not consider conference standings when it makes its selections, finishing among the top four in the SEC would earn the Wildcats a bye into the SEC tournament quarterfinals. That probably would diminish the chances of Kentucky suffering a bad loss in the conference tournament, but would eliminate the chance of getting another win against a lesser conference team in an earlier-round game.
The most obvious advantage to earning a top-four seed is that the Wildcats would need to win only three games instead of four to capture the SEC tournament and earn an automatic NCAA tournament berth.
Nerlens Noel's injury created three problems that will be difficult to solve.
1. Kentucky seemed to be finding its rhythm in the weeks leading up to Noel's injury, and making significant adjustments to compensate for the loss of a major component at this stage of the season is difficult. It took Duke time to establish a new identity after the loss of Ryan Kelly, and the Blue Devils still are not as good without him.
2. Noel's major impact was on the defensive end, and that is where the Wildcats are most vulnerable.
For whatever reason, the Wildcats have been poor perimeter defenders, but Noel erased that shortcoming to a large degree with his shot-blocking ability. Whenever an opposing player beat his defender, the opponent still had to face Noel in an attempt to get off a high-percentage shot.
That is no longer an issue. Opposing teams not only can go into the paint with more confidence, but can focus more on taking advantage of Kentucky's biggest weakness, which is on-ball defense, to take Kentucky defenders off the dribble.
3. Noel's shot-blocking and rebounding helped initiate Kentucky's transition game, and the Wildcat players are more comfortable in an open-court game. Put Archie Goodwin in the open court or put Alex Poythress at the end of a fast break, and few can stop them.
Creating that situation is more difficult without Noel in the middle defensively.
The Wildcats have had point guard issues all season, but Noel's injury had no affect on that.
Two things provide optimism for Kentucky's postseason chances: the coach and the talent.
John Calipari has complained that his players this season are not coachable (though he backed off his statements later). But in this dire situation, they may be more willing to listen. Calipari is capable of figuring out ways to disguise the defensive shortcomings to some extent, although it will require improved defensive effort on the part of the players to achieve what is needed.
If the players start playing with the kind of urgency the situation demands, displaying a toughness and emotion they have not displayed previously, it might bring positive results that could initiate a late-season run.
That's within the realm of possibility for this team because of the talent on the roster. Even with the loss of a player who could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the Wildcats have three other possible first-round NBA picks: Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
It's almost incomprehensible that a team with three first-rounders would not make the NCAA tournament. Despite all the discussion that point-guard play or defense or three-point shooting or any number of other things are the keys to postseason success, the teams that perform best in the NCAA tournament are simply the teams with the most NBA-caliber talent.
Count up the number of first-round NBA draft picks on the roster and that typically correlates to the team's NCAA tournament success.
Cauley-Stein may be the key. The 7' freshman is not the shot-blocker Noel was, but he had three blocks in a career game against Vanderbilt. If he can provide some interior intimidation and continue to improve offensively, it will go a long way toward alleviating the other shortcomings.
Kentucky needs a big finish to get into the NCAA tournament.
It probably needs to win at least three of its final five scheduled games and at least one game in the SEC tournament to be considered. And that would only be enough for an at-large berth if three things happen: Kentucky looks impressive in the process, some other teams on the bubble slide and a minimal number of upsets occur in conference tournaments.
The Wildcats also need to beat either Missouri or Florida, and may need to win both.
Kentucky's best bet is to win the SEC tournament. If Florida is upset in the conference tournament, that is a viable path for the Wildcats, who are very capable of beating anyone other than the Gators and earning the automatic NCAA berth that goes to the SEC tournament champion.
Otherwise, Kentucky is already behind the eight-ball in the selection committee's eyes because it has not performed well in the two games it played without Nerlens Noel. It has to do something rather dramatic to change that impression.
The Wildcats would not be in the NCAA tournament as of February 20, so they would have to pass several teams ahead of them to get in.
The guess here is that Kentucky will go 3-2 in its final five scheduled games, but will win no more than one SEC tournament game. Too many things outside the Wildcats' control would have to fall in their favor for them to make the NCAA tournament in that scenario.
Therefore, the prediction is that Kentucky is headed for the NIT.