On Thursday, a few teams helped their respective causes. And a few teams continued to miss their potential. See: Kentucky and Iowa.
Kentucky: Even though the Wildcats suffered their second overtime loss of the season to Arkansas on Thursday night, there’s still hope. Maybe. Kentucky is clearly struggling without any veteran leaders who can help John Calipari’s team maintain -- or discover -- its poise in tight games. And that’s a troubling condition. But a roster that might possess three or four first-round picks always has a chance to put it all together in the final weeks of the season, right? That might not happen for a program with an offense ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, but it’s possible. Right?
The problem with Kentucky is that the “What if?” scenarios have all lost their flavor as the regular season nears its conclusion. Doesn’t matter what they could be. We have to look at what they are: good only in spurts. Yes, Kentucky could do a lot of things. But one must consider what it has failed to do, despite boasting eight McDonald’s All-Americans. It’s not working. Not consistently. A 21-7 record would be an achievement for most squads. The Wildcats, however, began the season with one of the best recruiting classes in NCAA history and now they can’t even get through the weak SEC. Other than a December win over Louisville, Kentucky hasn’t done anything to prove that it’s elite and prepared to compete with some of the nation’s best teams in the coming weeks. And that’s never a good thing with March only days away.
Iowa: Last season was filled with missed opportunities for the Hawkeyes. But it was also promising for a team that reached the NIT championship game in 2012-13. Its collection of single-digit losses to Big Ten contenders offered hope that Fran McCaffery’s program would have a chance to compete for the league’s crown and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. Right now, however, this just looks like the Iowa of past years. Distancing itself from its potential. Consider how they arrived at Thursday’s loss to Indiana in Bloomington. The Hawkeyes led by seven points with 18:01 to play. And then, Indiana launched a 26-11 run over the next 15 minutes and took over the game.
Yes, the Hawkeyes were on the road. Yes, Indiana is a sub-.500 Big Ten team that counts every game as a chance to salvage its season. But the Hawkeyes were supposed to win these games this season. At least some of them. Instead, their resume is decorated with single-digit losses to Iowa State, Villanova, Wisconsin (twice), Michigan and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes gave up 95 points in a loss at Minnesota on Tuesday and 93 points in a loss at Indiana on Thursday. Their defensive troubles (65th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, prior to Thursday’s loss) have been a major issue in this three-game losing streak. Iowa should still make the tournament. With the roster it has, however, getting there shouldn’t have been the original goal. The Hawkeyes have the tools to make a run. But that’s meaningless if you don’t prove it. They’re in danger of falling into a low seed and an opening matchup against one of the elite teams that they’ve wrestled with all season.
Arkansas: Mike Anderson’s program is doing what the rest of the SEC’s bubble teams can’t seem to do: it’s winning. Arkansas is on a four-game winning streak after completing the season sweep of Kentucky on Thursday night. The Razorbacks are 4-5 against the RPI’s top 50. And they’re 3-1 in their past four road games. Arkansas is doing a great job of positioning itself for an at-large bid with this late push. Proof? According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the Razorbacks are in the field of 68 right now.
Louisville: With so many new faces, it took Louisville some time to build chemistry and begin to play the brand of basketball that fueled its rise to the national championship last season. But look at the Cardinals now. They’ve lost one game since Jan. 9. And they avenged that Jan. 30 loss to Cincinnati via Russ Smith’s buzzer-beating game-winner against the Bearcats last weekend. Thursday’s 88-66 win over Temple was its 11th win in 12 games. It’s top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, numbers enhanced by Smith, arguably the nation’s most versatile player. Louisville is playing some of the best basketball in America.