Kentucky’s path to the 2022 Final Four


Kentucky Wildcats guard TyTy Washington Jr. (3) celebrates a teammates 3-pointer during the UK vs. Vanderbilt SEC Tournament quarterfinals mens basketball game on Friday, March 11, 2022, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. UK won 77-71. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

With the field of 68 set in stone, Kentucky’s path to its ninth national championship, second under head coach John Calipari, has been laid out.

Earning the No. 2 seed in the East Region, Kentucky first squares off with Saint Peter’s, who won the MAAC auto-bid after defeating Monmouth on Saturday.

While the Peacocks should not pose much of a threat for the Wildcats, the second round looks to be a wildcard, regardless of who wins.

The Cats will face the winner of Murray State and San Francisco, two mid-major teams that should not be glossed over by any team that may deem itself superior based on conference status.

Looking first at San Francisco, the Dons earned an at-large bid out of the West Coast Conference (WCC), getting knocked out in the semi-finals by the eventual winner Gonzaga.

The Dons are top 25 in metrics such as KenPom, boasting a top-20 defense in the country, based on efficiency margins. 

With Kentucky having struggled this season with poor offensive performances, specifically both Tennessee losses and the Notre Dame loss early in the season, San Francisco may pose a bigger threat than Wildcat fans who discredit conferences like the WCC may realize.

The alternative to San Francisco is equally as risky, with Murray State checking in at No. 27 in KenPom, as well as finishing the season inside the AP Top 25. The Racers won the Ohio Valley Conference auto-bid over Morehead State in its last season in the conference.

Murray, who won the bid all the way back on March 5, will be well-rested with plenty of time to prepare, using the extended break to improve upon its already top-60 offense and defense.

Another factor worth considering if Murray State knocks off San Francisco is the relative location of the Racers. A potential second round duel would act as a game of pride for both Murray State and the Wildcats, who were the only teams from the Bluegrass State to claim a tournament spot, thanks to a down year from the Louisville Cardinals, a usual tournament contender.

Assuming Kentucky makes it to the Sweet 16, the Cats would most likely expect to run into No. 3 Purdue, who had been projected as a No. 2 seed in many of the brackets leading up to Selection Sunday, before coming up short to Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.

The Boilermakers, while less than stellar on defense, boast the No. 3 offense in the country according to KenPom, putting them as the No. 14 team in the nation in the rankings.

If Purdue does not make it to the Sweet 16, it was most likely knocked out by one of Virginia Tech or Texas, with the Longhorns being the more probable candidate.

Texas was upset in the Big 12 tournament by TCU, but are still a strong contender to make a deep run in the Big Dance under new head coach Chris Beard.

The Longhorns check in at No. 15 overall in KenPom, with a strong adjusted defensive efficiency margin, entering the tournament as one of the best 15 defensive teams in the nation.

Virginia Tech on the other hand, while not popping off the page in most metrics, are red hot entering March Madness, handily defeating Duke in the ACC Championship game to claim the auto-bid.

While it was a down year for the ACC as a whole, Virginia Tech is still top 25 in KenPom with an extremely low adjusted tempo that may hurt Kentucky’s offense.

While the bracket gets harder and harder to predict going forward, it’s most likely that Kentucky would run into either Baylor or UCLA in the Elite Eight.

Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the East, earned its seed by securing the most wins over Quadrant-1 opponents during conference play before being stunned by Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament.

The Bears are top 15 in KenPom, boasting both a top 15 offense and defense, as well as a relatively slow adjusted tempo, not far off from Kentucky’s own tempo. All of those factors will contribute to a tough matchup if both teams meet in the Elite Eight.

UCLA, on the other hand, proved last season why you can’t count out the Bruins, regardless of what happened in the regular season.

The Bruins entered the tournament in 2021 as a No. 11 seed in the First Four games before going on to a Final Four appearance, losing to a game winning 3-pointer by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs.

With players like former Wildcat Johnny Juzang leading the charge for UCLA, the Bruins also boast both a top-15 offense and defense that will give them the keys to a potentially electric matchup against UK.

While all of those possibilities leave a lot of anxiety for Kentucky fans, they don’t even look at other potential threats such as Marquette, under the leadership of Shaka Smart, or North Carolina, who throttled Duke inside Cameron Indoor Arena for Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game, even Saint Mary’s, who knocked off Gonzaga during the regular season.

Regardless of who Kentucky meets on its path to the Final Four in New Orleans, the East Region is destined to be ripe with thrilling matchups.

Kentucky’s first round matchup against St. Peter’s is currently scheduled to tip-off on Thursday, March 17 from Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Tip-off is set for 7:10 p.m. EST and will air on CBS.