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By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3
When the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens meet in New Orleans this Sunday for something called “The Super Bowl,” UK Hoops will have its own marquee matchup to worry about.
The Georgia Bulldogs, ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25 and No. 14 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, will enter Memorial Coliseum sporting an impressive 17-3 (5-2) record, pending the result of their Thursday night rematch with Alabama. The Bulldogs beat the Crimson Tide 95-83 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 10.
The Cats, coming off a week where they lost at No. 15 South Carolina, surrendering their first SEC game and ending a 17-game winning streak, and battled to survive a tough LSU team at home, dropped to No. 8 in the AP poll, No. 7 in the USA Today poll.
The ramifications of Sunday’s game will impact the SEC picture dramatically. As of now, five teams are crowded at the top. No. 9 Tennessee leads the conference with a 9-0 record. A half game behind sits UK at 7-1. No. 16 Texas A&M is next at 6-1, followed by South Carolina at 6-2. Then comes Georgia.
With UK’s pseudo bye week (no game on Thursday), all these teams can be expected to pick up another half game on the Cats, with the exception of the Gamecocks, who are also off on Thursday.
Thus the matchup with Georgia becomes magnified. Should UK stumble, not only does its 34-game home win streak come to a halt, its position in the SEC ranks becomes compromised. UK would sit at 7-2, two and a half games back of Tennessee, who should defeat Mississippi State and Missouri this week.
The Cats would also fall behind A&M should they beat Vanderbilt and LSU. UK would also be knotted in a tie with South Carolina, which plays Auburn on Sunday, and Georgia, which would have the toughest portion of its schedule in the rearview.
On the flipside, UK is entering a stretch of tough games, including back-to-back road games at Arkansas and Vandy, a home matchup with South Carolina on Valentine’s Day, a trip to College Station for a rematch with A&M on Feb. 18 and what should be a titanic struggle against Tennessee to close the SEC season on March 3. So far this season, three of the Vols’ four losses are to teams currently ranked in the AP Top 4 (No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 UConn, No. 4 Stanford).
If UK wins, the Cats are 8-1 and in prime position to defend their SEC regular season title. If both Tennessee and UK win out, with UK taking the head-to-head matchup, the two would share the title. Should the Vols drop a game before then, most likely to the Aggies on Feb. 28, UK will retain its crown.
Perhaps more important to head coach Matthew Mitchell and his team is their NCAA Tournament seeding. Winning the tough SEC, both regular season and tournament, and the Cats are a lock for a No. 2 seed with an outside shot at a No. 1.
Win one or the other, Mitchell’s squad is looking most likely at a No. 3 seed with a shot at a No. 2, depending how other conference races shake out.
Win neither, and the Cats slide to a No. 4 or No. 5, making their road to the Final Four much more treacherous.
So it’s safe to say super bowl parties and Beyonce’s halftime show won’t be the first priorities for Mitchell and the Cats this Sunday, especially when the SEC, and potentially their NCAA fate, hang in the balance.