Team: Kentucky Wildcats
Record: 19-12 (8-8)
Preseason Expectations: The Wildcats fell into the “others receiving votes” category in both the AP and the ESPN/USA Today polls. But in a year most people predicted the SEC to be weak, Kentucky was predicted to finish third in the SEC East by most publications, and were considered a good bet to be in the NCAA tournament come March. A distant glimmer from AD Mitch Barnhart saying the Wildcats would accept an NIT bid.
Best Wins: Kentucky won the Las Vegas Invitational at the end of November, and had to beat Kansas State (74-72) and West Virginia (54-43) to do so. But there most impressive win is obviously their 90-72 victory in Knoxville over Bruce Pearl and co. If you were hiding under a rock during that game, Jodie Meeks dropped 54 points on the Volunteers. They beat Tennessee again in late February, 77-58.
Worst Losses: Allowing VMI to score triple digits in a 111-103 loss on in their opening game was not the start that Billy Gillispie was looking for. But their worst loss came just five days ago when they had a chance to strengthen their tournament resume and got beat by a scuffling, rudderless Georgia team at Rupp Arena.
Where it ended: Right after their second victory of Tennessee, it looked like Kentucky was in a great position to make it to the field of 65 as they sat 19-8 (8-4). But just four days later the ‘Cats got embarrassed on the road by South Carolina (77-59), which started the four game losing streak they are currently on which includes uninspired losses to LSU, Georgia, and Florida. Now a deep SEC tournament run is the only thing that will save them.
What went wrong: It should be impossible to finish just 8-8 in the SEC with two players as good as Meeks and Patrick Patterson, but the Wildcats did a darn good job of it and their lack of a point guard is to blame. Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, and most recently, Michael Porter, have all tried their hand at the position with mixed results. In fact, no one on Kentucky averages more than 3.1 assists per game and only little used reserve Landon Slone carries an assist/turnover ratio better than 1.2/1. Sloppy play and rookie mistakes plagued the ‘Cats all season and have cost them down the stretch.
What’s next: A lot of analysts seem to think that if Kentucky fails to make it to the NCAA tournament, they could lose both Patterson and Meeks to the NBA which would be a crippling blow to Gillispie. Kentucky has four prospects signed for next year, including five-star center Daniel Orton, but no one outside of Lexington thinks that three-star GJ Vilarino will come in and save the team at the point position. Kentucky’s best hope is to put on the full-court press for uncommitted stud Eric Bledsoe and hope that Meeks and Patterson stay around another year.
Team: Virginia Tech Hokies
Record: 17-13 (7-9)
Preseason Expectations: The Hokies were predicted to finish sixth in the ACC but received no love from the national polls and were left out of everyone’s top 25. But, they were a trendy sleeper pick at the beginning of the year if they could get improvements from sophomores Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen.
Best Wins: In the middle of January the Hokies traveled to play a streaking Wake Forest team that had just earned the No.1 ranking, and thoroughly outplayed the Demon Deacons, weathering a late rally to hold on for a 77-71 victory. Their only other victory of note came in late February when they beat Clemson 80-77 in Blacksburg and get Hokie fans talking about the tournament.
Worst Losses: For Seth Greenberg and his team, it really depends on how you define “worst”. This team wouldn’t even be on the bubble if it hadn’t been for some heart-palpitating, last second losses. The team lost to Xavier in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tipoff 63-62 on a 60-foot buzzer beat from Dante Jackson. Just 10 days later they got beat by Wisconsin 74-72 when Trevon Hughes hit an improbable runner in the lane with less than one second left. Then, at the end of January, they lost to BC by one point (67-66) on a Rakim Sanders put back with less than one second left as well. The team also had bad losses to Seton Hall, Georgia, and Virginia, but those three heartbreakers are what they will remember if they are playing in the NIT this year.
Where it ended: One might say in ended when Sanders hit that put back, because since then, the team is just 3-6, and although they have beaten Clemson and North Carolina State over that time, playing well down the stretch counts, and the Hokies have lost their last three games, albeit all to ranked teams. The Hokies don’t have the worst RPI (59), but they are the No. 8 seed in their conference tournament, and even if they do make it past Miami, that means a date with No. 1 seed North Carolina in Greensboro…Good Luck!
What went wrong: Virginia Tech is a very hard team to figure out. You could cite end of the game execution and focus as to where they went astray with those three back-breaking losses because if they didn’t lose those games, we would be talking about a 20-win team. But really they went wrong when their big three (Delaney, Allen and A.D. Vassallo) started disappearing in key games. For example, in losses to Wisconsin, Georgia, and Florida State, Allen had two, eight, and six points respectively. In losses to Xavier and Duke, Vassallo had four, and seven points respectively. And, in their past three losses, Delaney has shot a combined 10-40 from the field. If those players had stepped up in crucial moments, this season would have gone differently.
What’s next: Seth Greenberg must be getting frustrated. Every year, the Hokies are so close, and yet fail to come up big down the stretch. But, assuming that both Allen and Delaney will be back for their junior seasons, the Hokies are in good shape. They lose their leading scorer in Vassallo, but they only lose one other player, and Cheick Diakite is a non-factor. Greenberg has also been successful on the recruiting trail. He has signed a solid, well-balanced, five-man class that features all three-star players. With added depth, and continued improvement, the Hokies should be a tournament team in 2010.