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Saturday, March 9, 2013
With one chance left, UK comes through

By Eamonn Brennan

Anyone who saw Kentucky's post-Georgia news conferences would have been excused for thinking the Wildcats were, for lack of a better word, done.

John Calipari said he'd done a "crap job" with this team. An angry Archie Goodwin claimed UK could beat anyone, or lose to anyone, hinging on its own performance. Willie Cauley-Stein suggested fans pray, then thought better of it; maybe the Wildcats themselves were the ones who needed a long session in a very quiet church.

John Calipari
Despite Kentucky's pivotal win over Florida, coach John Calipari knows his Wildcats can't relax with the SEC tournament nearing.
The overall effect, at least to the outsider, was disintegration: Kentucky had never really come together this season. Save Nerlens Noel, its freshmen largely played like freshmen (Alex Poythress was as disappointing as any newcomer in the country); Kyle Wiltjer never really became a go-to scoring threat; and Ryan Harrow largely went MIA. We waited and waited for UK to come around, but it never really happened — at least not before Noel tore his ACL at Florida and UK's bubble odds hockey-sticked in the wrong direction. A loss at Georgia? For a bubble team? In March? It's official: Your season is over.

Except it wasn't over. Kentucky had one last shot.
When asked how the season can be saved, Calipari answered quickly. "Beat Florida," he said. "That's what I told the team: Beat Florida and this all goes away."

On Saturday, as you may have heard, Kentucky scored the final 11 points of the game and beat Florida, 61-57.

So: Did "all this" — all the second-guessing and soft play and recriminations and, most importantly, the bubble uncertainty — go away?

At least where the bubble is concerned, the answer is: not exactly.

Make no mistake: Kentucky is surely in a better position now than when it started Saturday. By most estimations, even our own Joe Lunardi's, Kentucky began the day just outside the bubble cut line, one of the first four teams out of the field if the bracket were selected and seeded today. The Bracket Project collects dozens of brackets and parlays them into the wisdom of the crowd; by its lights, UK was the last at-large team in the field when it woke up Saturday morning. The win over Florida should provide an immediate boost: By 3 p.m. ET Saturday, as the Wildcats celebrated in Lexington, Ky., Lunardi had moved UK up into his last four in.

Over the past week, I've seen a number of Twitter replies asking — OK, shouting — about how Kentucky couldn't possibly still be on the bubble, how we all had to be reading its résumé wrong. Or, maybe it was a conspiracy? Conspiracy! Gasp!

The simple fact of the matter is that the bubble is soft and, at least until we get a few bid thieves from some of the sport's smaller leagues, it is only getting softer. Even after the win over Florida, Kentucky's résumé — two good wins at home, little more — is hardly inspiring. But look at some of its best relative competition on the bubble line in Lunardi's latest update: Temple, Virginia, Boise State, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama, Southern Miss, Baylor, Maryland, Arizona State, Iowa. Guys, I put Providence on the Bubble Watch this week. Providence. The bubble is all relative, and some of these teams make Kentucky 2013 look like Kentucky 2012.

But that does not mean the troubles are over. The SEC tournament awaits. Kentucky will still have to navigate through a minefield of fellow bubble teams — Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama and even Arkansas will be looking for a late push — as well as the lower portions of this ugly SEC, any of which could torpedo your season in one 40-minute burst. We could also see the bubble tighten up nationally. Anything can happen.

So, no, Kentucky is not an automatic lock to make the tournament after Saturday's win over Florida. The anxiety will remain. But UK is undoubtedly a lot closer than it was to start the day, and at this stage of the season, with so many bubble squads seeming intent on falling apart, knocking off the Gators must count not only as a résumé helper but as a climb atop some invisible mental barrier the young Cats had yet to conquer. Now all they have to do is hold on.