Time to put streaking Cats on NCAA Tournament bubble

UK is on the right path now. To the NCAA Tournament, that is.

With yesterday’s uptight 58-54 win over Ole Miss, UK moved to 16-10 overall and 10-3 in the Southeastern Conference. The win was the Cats’ fourth in a row and ninth in their last 10 games.

That’s the type of conference surge that has all but wiped out the memories of the horrid non-conference start. And the streak has put UK squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

And that’s exactly where UK fans should want to be. This wasn’t possible two months ago. Or two weeks ago. Or two days ago.

But now UK has 10 conference wins, which is a watershed mark for getting into the NCAA Tournament. Since the SEC expanded in 1992, every team that had 10 conference wins and was eligible for postseason play has made the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m really excited about where this puts us,” UK head coach Billy Gillispie said.

It puts UK in a good spot, but not a guaranteed spot.

UK is likely going to need more than 10 wins to get into the tournament because of what happened before SEC play started. There’s no magic number for UK to reach to assure itself of getting into the tournament, but here’s a pretty well educated guess: win two out of three to close the regular season.

Win two out of three, and UK is in. No doubt about it. One win might get the Cats in, but two would all but clinch a spot. That’s the path UK can take to get into the NCAA Tournament.

The best part about that path, it doesn’t matter what route UK takes.

If the Cats beat Tennessee and either South Carolina or Florida, they are definitely in. That will mean a 12-4 finish coupled with a season sweep of the nation’s (for now) No. 1-ranked team.

If the Cats beat South Carolina and Florida and lose to the Volunteers, they’re still in. That’s the same 12-4 finish, plus they’ll have gained another quality win over the likely tourney-bound Gators.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask. They should be favored in the final two games (South Carolina and Florida) and they’ve already proven they can beat Tennessee.

UK did it again last night with its defense. The Cats held the Rebels to just 24 percent shooting in the first half and 31.3 for the game. Nothing came easy for Ole Miss, especially shooting, passing, dribbling and scoring.

Rebels’ guard Chris Warren had 25 points, 23 of which came in the second half, and center Dwayne Curtis had 15 rebounds. But every other Ole Miss player was ineffective. That’s impressive considering the Rebels have the conference’s third highest scoring average.

UK can go a long way to becoming SEC champs Sunday against Tennessee. The Cats trail the Vols in the conference standings by one game. If they win, they’ll be tied for the league lead with two games to play.

“We’re happy we got to 10 wins in the SEC,” said senior guard Joe Crawford, who tied Patrick Patterson for a team-high 15 points. “But we want to be SEC champs and that’s still within our reach.”

That would be enormous for UK’s improving NCAA Tournament resume.

UK has three quality wins so far — Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. They have a Ratings Percentage Index score of 66, but that was before last night’s win.

Last year, Stanford had the lowest RPI of all the at-large teams in the NCAA Tournament. Their RPI was 65. That number will improve if the Cats win two out of their last three games.

The numbers are adding up for UK to make the NCAA Tournament. Now all they have to do is finish.

Jonathan Smith is a journalism senior. E-mail jsmith@kykernel. com.