Loss to Tennessee leaves NCAA Tournament uncertainty for Kentucky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As PJ Washington failed to rebound his own miss for a third straight time and Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone came up with the ball to reach the free throw line for two game-clinching free throws, more was lost for Kentucky than a possible fifth straight SEC Tournament title.

As Bone made both free throws with 10 seconds remaining to stretch Tennessee’s lead to four points in what ended an 82-78 Volunteers win, he clinched a spot in the tournament final for the Volunteers and also the best case to represent the league as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the bracket is revealed Sunday.

In the process he likely relegated the Wildcats to the No. 2 seed line and an uneasy 24 hours waiting to learn where they will be sent in the NCAA Tournament and if the committee will set up a possible regional final matchup with a No. 1 seeded Duke.

Related: Kentucky eliminated by Tennessee in SEC Tournament semifinals

“There’s a bunch of teams that would say (they’re a No. 1),” UK coach John Calipari said. “I’d say we’re pretty good. It’s not if we’re a 1 or 2. It’s who is the other team? I have an idea who it will be.”

On the eve of Selection Sunday, Duke and fellow ACC squad Virginia appear to have locked up the top two No. 1 seeds with Blue Devils star freshman Zion Williamson returning to action this weekend to lead Duke to a win over North Carolina. Tennessee with its 28-4 record, nine victories in Quadrant 1 games (NET top-30 teams at home, top-50 teams in neutral sites and top-75 teams on the road) and two straight wins over the Wildcats has almost certainly moved passed Kentucky in the pecking order.

Gonzaga, which is still ranked No. 2 by the NET despite a loss to a middling Saint Mary’s squad in its conference tournament earlier this week, is likely also still ahead of the Wildcats. North Carolina thanks to its two recent wins over Duke while Williamson was injured might be as well despite Kentucky’s head-to-head win in December. Michigan State could possibly jump ahead of Calipari’s team with a third win over rival Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final Sunday.

Kentucky’s resume is still strong though, possibly strong enough to hold off several of those teams.

The Wildcats boast 10 Quadrant 1 victories, third-most of any team in the country. One of its losses to Tennessee came without graduate student forward Reid Travis. It’s strength of schedule was ranked 12th nationally entering Saturday’s game, better than Virginia, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Michigan State.

But of the group of possible No. 1 seed contenders, Kentucky’s losses to Seton Hall (58) and Alabama (61) are ranked lower in the NET than any team’s worst defeat other than Michigan State.

“I would think everybody would think they would be a No. 1 seed,” freshman point guard Ashton Hagans said. “I think we should be a No. 1 seed, but whatever happens happens.”

Dropping to a two seed might hold a silver lining for Kentucky, as it would open the door to playing in the South Region’s second weekend hosted at the KFC Yum! Center in front of what would surely be a heavily partisan pro-Kentucky crowd.

The selection committee slots teams into their closest available region based on the s-curve as long as other bracketing guidelines, like placing teams from the same conference on the first four seed lines in different regions and avoiding matchups between the top No. 1 seed and top No. 2 seed.

With whichever of Virginia and Duke is ranked higher by the committee likely headed to the East Region in Washington, D.C., and the other likely being placed in Louisville, North Carolina would be locked out of both regions even if the Tar Heels are ranked as the top No. 2 seed.

“We make a point of making sure the teams play close to their national region,” selection committee chairman Bernard Muir said earlier this week. “If (Kentucky) happens to be next in line (as a No. 2 seed), and Louisville is available, the committee will not have a problem putting them in that potential region provided there’s no other conflict.”

While the possibility of the No. 1 seed in Louisville facing a home-court disadvantage against a No. 2 seeded Kentucky in the regional final appears unfair, Virginia’s loss to No. 16 seed UMBC a year ago shows why the committee cannot be too worried about potential matchups down the line that might never happen.

Calipari seemed convinced Saturday that a regional final matchup between Kentucky and Duke, which embarrassed the Wildcats by 34 points in the season opener, is all but a certainty. If that matchup were to come in Louisville, it might appease some Kentucky fans, but not the Wildcats’ coach.

“If you’re telling me we’re the No. 1 two seed, we should play the lowest of the one seeds,” he said, arguing that since all teams used chartered flights for the tournament playing closer should not be valued more than equitable matchups. “That’s all I’m saying. If you’re saying we’re the second, we should play the third of the one seeds. Maybe it won’t happen that way. We’ll see.”

Earlier: Reid Travis’ return has Kentucky basketball’s postseason stock rising

Hagans welcomed a possible rematch with Duke in the NCAA Tournament – “It’s something we’re looking forward to,” he said – but noted regardless of potential matchups Kentucky will need to fight better than it did down the stretch against Tennessee when it blew an 8-point lead in the final three minutes.

“I don’t think we’re too much worried about it,” freshman guard Tyler Herro said. “We have to play everybody anyway, so wherever we go we have to compete.”

Perhaps the only certainty about Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament path less than 24 hours before it is revealed is that Calipari will find something he does not like about it.

Whether that’s because he feels the Wildcats are underseeded, the committee did not send Kentucky to Louisville when bracket guidelines say it should have or because of a skewed pairing with the other top seeds in the region is the mystery.

“When you’re in the easy (region), you’re happy,” he said. “Seems like those teams are always happy. If you’re in the tough one, you’re always upset.”

Jon Hale: jahale@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/jonh.

Published 8:12 PM EDT Mar 16, 2019