This Kentucky basketball team has a problem. It might not get solved before March Madness.

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Less than a week before the calendar turns to March, this Kentucky basketball team has a problem.

The No. 17-ranked Wildcats have shown that they’re capable of beating any team in the country on any given night. What they haven’t been able to do — and what any team hoping for a lengthy postseason run must be able to achieve — is string together a series of quality wins.

To check this box before tournament play begins, the Cats are running out of time.

A recap of the basic math: A team must win four games in a row to make it to the Final Four, a place Kentucky hasn’t been in nine years. A team must win six games in a row to cut down the nets as NCAA champions, something the Wildcats haven’t done in a dozen years.

Anything less, around here, is not cause for celebration.

So far this season, UK has one six-game winning streak, but that run included four victories over teams outside the top 140 nationally in the KenPom ratings. The Cats are highly unlikely to see any team nearly that bad over the course of an NCAA Tournament run.

Kentucky also has a separate four-game winning streak, but the best night of that November run came in Rupp Arena against Miami, seemingly a terrific victory at the time but one that has soured with age. The Hurricanes entered the weekend at No. 92 in the KenPom ratings, mired in a five-game losing streak and owners of a 6-10 record in the not-so-great ACC.

Since SEC play began, the Wildcats haven’t won more than two games in a row. And every time it seems like they’re on the verge of transitioning from good to great, there’s another bump in the road.

Kentucky was coming off a road win at Florida and a convincing victory over Missouri when it stumbled to an overtime loss at Texas A&M last month. The Cats rebounded for clear victories over Mississippi State and Georgia, the win over the Bulldogs appearing to be a turning point. That’s the day Zvonimir Ivisic made his electric debut, Rupp Arena was rocking with excitement, and the this-could-be-the-year talk reached a fever pitch. And three days later, the No. 6-ranked Wildcats suffered the most-lopsided defeat of their season — 79-62 at South Carolina.

That night in Columbia set off a miserable stretch in which Kentucky lost four of six games — its only wins coming against SEC cellar-dwellers Arkansas and Vanderbilt — and sent hopes for a celebratory March reeling.

The hope was immediately restored with (finally) high-quality defensive efforts in wins over Ole Miss and No. 13-ranked Auburn, the Cats’ most-impressive two-game stretch of the season, which was quickly followed by a buzzer-beating loss at middling LSU.

That loss in Baton Rouge on Wednesday night rekindled talk of “back to the drawing board” and “we’re the youngest team in the country” and other platitudes preaching patience, but such a stumble a few weeks from now will be season-ender, and time is simply running out for these Cats to show they’re capable of making a run against a string of quality opponents.

Following the home game against SEC leader Alabama on Saturday, the Wildcats will have just four left in the regular season: home games against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, bookended by trips to Mississippi State and Tennessee.

The college basketball predictive websites project Kentucky to lose those two on the road. If that scenario plays out, the Cats will go into the SEC Tournament — now less than three weeks away — without a three-game winning streak this calendar year. The last time a UK basketball team failed to win three consecutive games after conference play began? It’s never happened. And the SEC has been around since 1932.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari and the Wildcats haven’t had a three-game winning streak since conference play began.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari and the Wildcats haven’t had a three-game winning streak since conference play began.

Hope for Kentucky?

Amid UK’s recent struggles, it’s often been pointed out that the 2023 NCAA champion UConn Huskies weren’t exactly setting the college basketball world on fire around this time last year either.

And that’s true, to a point.

Dan Hurley’s bunch from a season ago endured a brutal stretch early in conference play, losing six of eight games from Dec. 31 through Jan. 25, though they turned things around at that point — a full month earlier in the calendar than Kentucky is sitting now. Those Huskies won eight of their last nine regular-season games — the lone loss was a 57-54 defeat at No. 23 Creighton — and entered postseason play on a five-game winning streak.

UConn went on to win all six NCAA Tournament games by double digits.

But that team also showed the capability of such a run early on. The Huskies started last season at 14-0 and had a five-game stretch during that time in which they beat five KenPom top 75 teams in a row — four of them in the top 50 — with four of those games played away from home and all five wins coming by double digits. And that run included a 15-point win over eventual No. 1 overall seed Alabama on a neutral court.

Kentucky’s current résumé doesn’t have anything close to that kind of prolonged achievement.

Before UConn — a 4 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament — the previous seven national champions were all dominant during the regular season. Six were 1 seeds. The other was a 2 seed.

To find realistic hope for these Wildcats to achieve the ultimate goal — one that seemed so possible not that long ago — you’d have to go back a decade to the 2013-14 season, when UConn defeated Kentucky in the national title game.

Those Huskies had four separate winning streaks of three or four games after conference play began, but none featured more than one victory over a team of any count. They won their NCAA Tournament opener in overtime and took every game on their way to the title — playing as a 7 seed — by 12 or fewer points.

The Kentucky team they met in the championship game — the one led by Julius Randle and featuring an all-freshman starting lineup — never won more than four games in a row after Dec. 1, playing in an SEC that wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. Those Cats — an 8 seed — unleashed one of the most surprising runs in program history, clicking at exactly the right time and winning upset squeakers over Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin along the way.

And the UK team three years earlier — the one led by Brandon Knight — had a similarly bumpy regular-season road, never stringing together a three-game SEC winning streak until the final three games of the regular season before taking the league tournament and upsetting Ohio State and North Carolina to get Kentucky to its first Final Four in 13 years.

If there’s hope to be found for these Wildcats, a scenario like that is where to look.

They’re still working on it.

“It’s just being consistent,” UK sophomore Adou Thiero said Friday. “Just being able to take what we do in one game and bring it to the next.”

So far, the Cats haven’t been able to do that. Thiero also pointed out that — while noting he didn’t want to use it as an excuse — Kentucky had played only one half of basketball at full strength all season, with do-everything veteran Tre Mitchell injured early in the second half of the Ole Miss game, the 24th game of the season and first where all of UK’s scholarship players were available.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Thiero said. “It’s like the basketball gods don’t want to see us all play together, because they just know what’s going to happen if we all play together. But the time’s coming. Hopefully soon, we’ll have a whole team. And stay like that.”

That could be the start of something special. But the finish line to this season is fast approaching. And unless the Wildcats can finally put it all together over the next couple of weeks, they’ll go into the NCAA Tournament fighting history with hope.

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