Strong Finish Gives UK Baseball a Solid NCAA Tournament Resume

Strong Finish Gives UK Baseball a Solid NCAA Tournament Resume

by Tim Letcher

The Kentucky baseball team saw its magical run in the SEC Tournament come to an end on Saturday. But the Cats made the most of their stay in Hoover, Alabama, accomplishing enough to be in a very good position to make the 2022 NCAA Baseball Tournament.

Kentucky (33-26) sits firmly on the bubble with Selection Monday less than 24 hours away. But the Wildcats have a more than compelling case for earning a bid to the 64-team field.

It’s as simple as checking all of the boxes that the NCAA Tournament committee considers. The committee likes teams that fair well against conference opponents, teams that fare well against non-conference opponents, teams that play a strong schedule and teams that are playing well at the end of the season.

It begins with playing well against teams from your own league. Kentucky, playing in the nation’s best baseball conference, won 15 games against Southeastern Conference competition.

And Kentucky wasn’t beating up on the bottom half of the league. The Cats are the only team this season to win a series against top-ranked Tennessee. Kentucky also took three of four from Auburn, a team that was in the top 10 nationally in the RPI at the time it played UK. Kentucky beat Vanderbilt, another team that spent a large portion of the season in the RPI top 10, on two occasions. And, in the SEC Tournament, the Cats beat perhaps the hottest team in the country, LSU.

In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Kentucky did what many teams won’t do, scheduling a tough opponent early in the season for a three-game, weekend series. The first weekend in March, Kentucky faced a TCU team that would go on to win the Big 12 regular season championship. And, by the way, the Cats took two of three from the Horned Frogs. The Cats also visited Louisville, which is projected as a regional host in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

As for playing well at the end of the season, Kentucky emphatically checks that box. Kentucky is 7-3 in its last 10 games, including three wins over Auburn, and single wins over Vanderbilt, LSU and South Carolina. The Cats are 10-6 in their last 16 games, including handing Tennessee two of its seven losses this season.

Kentucky has 12 wins against the Top 25 in the RPI this season. That’s third in the nation, proving that the Wildcats can compete with anyone, including the nation’s very best.

The Cats have 12 losses against teams that are either ranked or were ranked at the time they faced UK. That includes losses at No. 3 Arkansas, at SEC West champion Texas A&M, against No. 1 Tennessee, No. 5 Vanderbilt, No. 7 Georgia, No. 8 TCU and at No. 13 Louisville. All of that adds up to a No. 18 strength of schedule for the Cats.

Kentucky has done nearly all of this while battling key injuries all season long. Cole Stupp, Kentucky’s Friday night starting pitcher at the beginning of the season, was lost for the remainder of the campaign after making just six starts. Darren Williams, who was pitching very well for the Cats, was lost to injury during his ninth appearance of the season.

Left-handed starting pitcher Tyler Bosma, who no-hit LSU for six innings on Saturday in the SEC Tournament, missed three starts during the SEC season. Lefty Mason Hazelwood, who bounced back nicely this year after surgery last season, also missed a start due to arm fatigue.

Designated hitter Oraj Anu missed 24 games with a pair of injuries. Center fielder John Thrasher missed two weeks with a hand injury.

How do Kentucky’s numbers stand up against other teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble? Very favorably.

Kentucky is 33-26 overall, with those 15 wins in the SEC. The Cats have 12 wins against the RPI Top 25, have a No. 18 strength of schedule and have 17 wins against Power Five opponents.

Alabama and Ole Miss in the SEC are also on the bubble. Here’s how they compare.

Alabama is 31-27 overall, with 14 wins in the SEC. The Crimson Tide has seven wins against the RPI Top 25, have a No. 3 strength of schedule and have 14 wins against Power Five opponents.

Ole Miss is 32-22 overall and has 14 wins in the SEC. The Rebels have seven wins against the RPI Top 25 and have a No. 7 strength of schedule. Ole Miss has 15 wins against Power Five opponents.

How about a non-conference team on the bubble? Old Dominion appears to be one of those teams. Here’s how the Monrachs stack up.

Old Dominion is 39-16 overall and has five wins against the RPI Top 25. ODU has a No. 79 strength of schedule and has just one Power Five victory.

The Cats have mounted a late-season rally to make all of this possible. That, combined with all of the factors listed above and the injuries that the Cats have overcome to make it happen, make Kentucky an NCAA Tournament-worthy team. The committee should award the Cats with a bid on Monday.


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