Dribble Handoff: With Kentucky struggling so far, how will the Wildcats end the regular season?

After starting the season ranked 4th in the AP Top 25, Kentucky didn’t receive a single vote in this week’s poll amid a 1-3 SEC start to the game marked by a embarrassing 78-52 loss to Alabama on Saturday, which was followed by a 71-68 loss to South Carolina on Tuesday that ended a 28-game Rupp Arena winning streak for the Wildcats. At NET No. 46 with an 0-4 record in Quad 1 games, the Wildcats are a deep disappointment after the return of National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe along with other key players such as Sahvir Wheeler and Jacob Toppin of 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 its highest. high profile within the UK fan base. The program’s last win in the Big Dance came in 2019, and it suddenly appears there’s no guarantee 2023 will bring one.

But there are still two months until the selection Sunday and Kentucky still has time to turn things around. Five-star freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston each showed encouraging flashes and should only get better as the season progresses. Sharpshooter CJ Fredrick is also expected to return from a finger injury at some point during league play.

The range of outcomes for the Wildcats remains vast, and the Calipari tenure saga reaches a critical point to capture the sport’s collective attention for weeks to come. For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers offer their projections on how the rest of Kentucky’s season will unfold.

Cats a bubble team but does Big Dance

  • Planned conference report: 10-8
  • Predicted seed for NCAA Tournament: No. 9

Kentucky has been mediocre all season and doesn’t look like it’s about to turn the tide. The Wildcats just blew themselves up in Alabama by 26 points. They are 3-3 in their last six games, still holding zero wins in Quadrant 1 and up to 45th in NET, 56th on BartTorvik.com and 62nd on KPI.

The UK looks like a possible bubble team.

At this point, I’m skeptical the Wildcats will ever live up to the preseason expectations that have them ranked No. 1 on KenPom.com, top five virtually everywhere, and labeled as SEC favorites — but I think always they’ll land on the right side of the bubble and make the NCAA Tournament. And then, who knows ? A year ago, the UK had a great regular season followed by a terrible NCAA tournament. This year could well be the opposite: a disappointing regular season followed by a great 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 put together, but it’s still a more talented roster than most coaches. Now it’s just a matter of figuring some things out, doing enough to make the 68 field, and then seeing if things can break for the better when this single-elimination tournament begins. – Gary Parrish

UK season remains bumpy but big wins will come

  • Planned conference report: 11-7
  • Predicted seed for NCAA Tournament: No. 9

Although the UK are 1-2 in the SEC – I expect them to be 2-2 after beating South Carolina at home on Tuesday night – this conference is going to be too tough to reasonably s expect the Wildcats to pull off something more than a four-game winning streak by the playoffs. There are seven road tries, plus a Jan. 28 home game against No. 2 Kansas in the latest SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Thus, losses will accumulate periodically. However, I expect Kentucky to find some resolve and strengthen their defense.

I expect him to pick up some critical Quad 1 wins and avoid bubbles by the second week of March. It’s going to end up looking like the team in 2014 that was in the 8/9 game. Because with five losses already and likely at least five more by the draft on Sunday, it’s optimistic that Kentucky will earn a single-digit top seed. I will say he narrowly does, though, thanks to a strong performance in the SEC tournament. And: Kentucky will beat Kansas later this month. –Matt Norlander

The Wildcats took flight in February

  • Planned conference report: 13-5
  • Predicted seed for NCAA Tournament: Number 6

There is no doubt that Kentucky underperformed against preseason expectations and even against relaxed expectations during the season after early struggles caused a hard reset. A 10-5 start to the season is an underperformance in Kentucky, even if you have some serious issues. There are, however, reasons for optimism and caution. It’s quietly one of the best 3-point shooting teams Calipari has fielded in the UK, and Oscar Tshiebwe, despite all his struggles, continued to hit the attacking glass hard and produce second-chance opportunities.

A few minor tweaks to player roles and an increased focus on what he does well — throwing 3-pointers, giving Cason Wallace table-setting opportunities, and getting Tshiebwe into favorable spots — might be enough to change the game. things. There are still things on the sidelines that need significant improvement – this team is awful at shooting free throws and they constantly come up against a late hero ball on offense – but I’ve seen enough positives to think this can be a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and become a top-15 team again by the end of the regular season. -Kyle Boone

UK in First Four, one of the last Big Dance teams

  • Planned conference report: 9-9
  • Predicted seed for NCAA Tournament: N° 12 (Four first)

Kentucky plays an antiquated offensive style that is defined by a methodical pace and limited ground spacing. Without an elite defense that can consistently create transition opportunities, the UK get bogged down in half-court sets and struggle 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 low-ends will ensure the Wildcats pick up a good number of league wins. But the UK doesn’t get a regular-season rematch with No. 4 Alabama, which has 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 represent Kentucky’s only chances to add substance to its resume.

It’s hard to see the Wildcats going better than maybe 2-4 or 3-3 against Arkansas (two games), Tennessee (two games), Auburn and Kansas. Kentucky seems destined for the NCAA tournament bubble, and I’ll take a swipe at the Wildcats to clinch a top four spot like other blue bloods such as Indiana, Michigan State and UCLA have done that for the past few years. –David Cobb

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