We can no longer ignore the elephant in the room: The Kentucky Wildcats, defending NCAA champions and the model of new-age success in college basketball, could miss the 2013 tournament. Really.
Those still reading need to at least face the possibility of sweating out Selection Sunday. The Wildcats are simply good, not great, and enter the heart of the season a long way from their accustomed "lock" status as an NCAA tournament team and Final Four regular.
In fact, the Wildcats are closer to missing the tournament entirely than to playing in April.
Here are several reasons why Kentucky is in danger of missing the 2013 NCAA tournament:
• Kentucky sits at No. 42 on our latest S-Curve. This is probably a bit generous, based more on recent history and potential than actual accomplishment. Regardless, that position means the Wildcats were just one spot away from a First Four game in our latest bracket. Only the Dayton business community would be happy with that outcome, I suspect.
• The Wildcats are 1-1 in early SEC play and needed a disputed bucket to escape Vanderbilt before being outclassed at home by Texas A&M. With four of their next six games away from Rupp Arena, there's every chance the Wildcats will hit the halfway mark of their league schedule not much better than .500 in the SEC. In a fairly weak conference, they'll need to be well above that by March.
• A week ago, UK was on my list of national leaders in "fake wins." Of the Wildcats' 10 victories this season, just two -- Maryland (in Brooklyn) and at Vanderbilt -- have come over non-guarantee opponents. That means a 10-5 record for the Wildcats, which is already borderline, is more like a 2-5 record in the eyes of the selection committee. There's a ton of work to do in a conference that suddenly presents more opportunities for "bad" losses than it does "good" wins.
• The RPI, typically so kind to Kentucky, is heading the opposite direction in 2013. UK's current number is 68 and, worse, the best RPI calculators have the Wildcats landing no better than the low 50s two months from now. Without a couple of serious NCAA-level wins on its resume, Kentucky is going to generate lots of bubble talk with that kind of profile.
The bottom line is that UK's season is going to come down to four SEC games: at Ole Miss (Jan. 29), at Florida (Feb. 12), home versus Missouri (Feb. 23) and the Florida rematch at Rupp Arena (March 9). A split of those contests should be enough, and most Kentucky teams would have little trouble hitting that mark.
But this Kentucky team has played only four comparable games all season. And all four -- a neutral-site game against Duke, at Notre Dame, home versus Baylor and at Louisville -- were losses.
If pressed, I would bet on continued improvement for the young Wildcats and a single-digit NCAA seed. But this season there is little certainty with Kentucky, on or off the court.