Back in November, Kentucky Coach Kyra Elzy was asked about the expansion of the Division I women’s basketball tournament this season from 64 to 68 teams, bringing the women’s end-of-year college tournament in line with the men’s version.
Elzy praised the change, calling it “a great asset” for women’s college basketball.
But before that praise came a qualifier, something Elzy said with a smile on her face and a chuckle.
“We better not be squeaking into the tournament, that is correct,” Elzy said playfully on Nov. 18.
Now, midway through January, Elzy’s Kentucky team is anything but firmly in the projected 68-team field.
In the latest NCAA Tournament bracketology published by ESPN’s Charlie Creme on Friday morning, UK was projected as a No. 9 seed in the tournament after being projected as a No. 3 seed in the preseason bracketology.
In last Friday’s update, Kentucky was listed as one of the final four teams to receive a first-round bye and UK was placed in the “on the bubble” category, meaning the Wildcats are dangerously close to missing the tournament altogether.
This projection came before Sunday afternoon’s lopsided loss by Kentucky at Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee dropped the Wildcats to 8-5 overall and 1-2 in the young SEC season.
UK is 0-4 in road games. However, it’s important to note that all four of Kentucky’s road contests have come against teams that were ranked in the top six of last week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Kentucky’s only home loss — which occurred at Rupp Arena against DePaul — came when an integral part of the UK team, junior forward Dre’una Edwards, didn’t play while serving a team suspension.
Through 13 games, Kentucky has a 1-5 record against teams projected by Creme to make the NCAA Tournament, with an eight-point home win over Georgia the lone victory.
The five losses have come by an average margin of 16.4 points, led by Sunday’s 26-point margin of defeat against the Lady Volunteers.
It all adds up to an NCAA Tournament résumé for Kentucky that is underwhelming with less than two months left in the regular season.
“As always you learn and grow,” Elzy said after the loss to Tennessee, which was ranked No. 5 in last week’s AP poll. “We can’t go anywhere but up from here. We go back to the drawing board, go back to work. One game doesn’t define us.”
The good news for Elzy and her team is that plenty of opportunities exist for UK to bolster their résumé with 13 games remaining against teams in a stacked SEC, a conference that is projected by Creme to send 10 of its 14 teams to the NCAA Tournament. UK will also have opportunities for quality wins during the end-of-season SEC Tournament in early March in Nashville.
But the margin of error for the Wildcats against teams that aren’t expected to comprise the upper crust of the SEC, like UK’s next game Thursday night at home against Florida (13-5, 3-2), is shrinking.
Elzy has reaffirmed her belief in this year’s Kentucky team several times, saying that UK “has enough” despite only nine scholarship players being available to play after the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by senior guard Blair Green during the preseason.
Three Wildcats — senior guards Rhyne Howard and Jazmine Massengill, along with Edwards — average more than 30 minutes played per game.
Howard is at the core of any discourse about UK needing to take full advantage of this 2021-22 season.
This is the star senior guard’s final season in Lexington, and she’s still widely projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s WNBA Draft.
In Howard’s previous three seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats have advanced only as far as the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. The 2020 edition of the tournament was canceled due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite struggles in games against Louisville and South Carolina, Howard remains the indispensable catalyst of the offense, a player that powered UK down the stretch in the Georgia win and that helped Kentucky establish an early lead at Tennessee.
“Obviously she’s an integral piece of our offense, but you have to have balanced scoring so they can’t load up on (Howard) defensively,” Elzy said Sunday. “At the end of the day you need three or four people in double-figures (scoring) and we just didn’t hit that today.”
Kentucky will need the players around Howard to contribute significantly to ensure the Wildcats are safely in the NCAA Tournament, but UK’s leeway in what is considered the best conference in the country is less now than it was before.
No. 19 Kentucky vs. Florida
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
TV: SEC Network