It’s welcome to the NCAA Tournament bubble for this Kentucky basketball team

After Saturday night’s 77-68 home loss to No. 9-ranked Kansas at Rupp Arena, Kentucky basketball’s official record is 14-7 overall and 5-3 in the SEC.

Only here is the Cats real record: 1-6.

Such is UK’s record against the best teams on its schedule to date, the so-called Quad 1 games according to the NCAA NET rankings, which listed the Cats at No. 35 on its computerized ranking sheet through Saturday’s schedule.

UK’s 66-53 turnaround triumph at Tennessee two weeks back is the outlier against Quad 1 losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, Missouri, Alabama and now Kansas.

Which begs the question: With 10 games remaining in the regular season, is this Kentucky basketball team an NCAA Tournament team?

That’s hardly the question we expected to be asking as we exit January. Not when Kentucky was No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and No. 1 in various preseason rankings, including Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics.

And yet quality opponents have done an excellent job all season of exploiting a flawed Kentucky team’s weaknesses. Kansas was no different. On a three-game losing streak, Bill Self’s prideful Jayhawks rolled into Rupp determined to attack where Kentucky was most vulnerable.

“I’ll be candid, we hoped to attack them in the pick-and-roll,” Self said afterward. “I don’t know how many points we scored off ball screens, but it had to be close to 20 tonight.”

Kentucky guard Antonio Reeves (12) reacts after being called for a foul against Kansas during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Antonio Reeves (12) reacts after being called for a foul against Kansas during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

This was nothing new. Alabama head coach Nate Oats made no secret of his team’s desire to put UK center Oscar Tshiebwe in ball screen situations after the Tide trampled the Cats 78-52 in Tuscaloosa. Three nights later, new South Carolina coach Lamont Paris echoed that same strategy after the Gamecocks’ 71-67 upset win in Rupp.

That same week, UK assistant coach Bruiser Flint told the media that most every team, dating back to last season, has used the same strategy of attempting to place Tshiebwe in the precarious situation of having to guard his man out on the floor.

“I’m just telling you, every team wants to put Oscar in a ball screen,” Flint said. “Every team.”

So why can’t Kentucky get it fixed? Saturday night, Calipari blamed (1) a lack of communication among UK’s defenders and (2) a lack of physicality. “They were knocking us off point,” the coach said.

“We need to be more physical,” forward Jacob Toppin said. “But we have to look at the tape to know what happened.”

An unexpected happening was Kansas’ rebounding advantage. Kentucky entered as the nation’s best offensive rebounding team, snatching 38.8 percent of its opportunities. (Baylor grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in its 75-69 win over Kansas on Monday night in Waco.) By night’s end, Kentucky had managed to collect just four offensive rebounds in 30 chances for 13.3 percent. And zero second-chance points.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” was Calipari’s reaction.

There’s no kidding now. The NCAA Tournament bubble is no joke. ESPN’s chief bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, had Kentucky among his “last four byes” in his Friday projections for the field of 68. Meanwhile, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm had the Cats as a No. 10 seed with a “pretty thin tournament résumé” heading into the Kansas game.

The good news: Kentucky’s schedule arguably softens in February. The bad news: There will be fewer opportunities to change skeptical minds on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

There’s Tennessee. The Vols will be seeking revenge on their Feb. 18 visit to Rupp. There’s Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers arrive in Lexington on Feb 25. There are two games with Arkansas, but Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks have slipped out of the AP Top 25 thanks to a 3-5 SEC record and 14-7 mark overall.

So Saturday’s missed opportunity means this Kentucky team has little margin for error down the stretch. It needs to win out heading to Nashville for the SEC Tournament on March 8-12. Even one upset loss could slide the Cats off the bubble.

“This is a marathon,” Calipari said Saturday. “We’ve got games (left) and we’ve just to keep getting better.”

At this point, however, have the Cats fallen too far behind to catch up?

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