In the SEC race, can the Cats catch up?

A'dia Mathies brings the ball up the court with High Point junior Tayler Tremblay battling her all the way at the Women's Basketball game at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, November. 17, 2012. Photo by Jonathan Krueger | Staff

By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3

aforkner@kykernel.com

When LSU upset No. 10 UK Hoops last Sunday on the bayou, the Cats lost more than just the game.

Also lost was the Cats’ control of the SEC regular season championship, which was coming down to the final game of the season in a marquee matchup against Tennessee on March 3.

Now a full two games behind the Vols for the SEC lead, and surrendering the tiebreaker to Georgia in a home loss on Feb. 3, UK’s mission to repeat seems unlikely to be accomplished. But that doesn’t mark the season as a loss.

The Cats still have plenty to play for on Sunday and in the coming weeks.

1. Border bragging rights

UK is an inauspicious 8-49 against Tennessee. But, after Pat Summitt’s tragic early retirement, now could be the time for a shift in power in the SEC.

The Vols are still talented under new head coach Holly Warlick, boasting a 22-5 record and ranked No. 8 in the country by the Associated Press.

The Vols’ lone loss in the SEC came on the road at Missouri, 80-63; a surprise considering Tennessee handled the Tigers 84-39 in Knoxville. Or is it surprising?

With games at Texas A&M and UK still to go, the Vols’ scoring margin is significantly better at home (+26.3) than on the road (+4.1).

Tennessee is no longer the juggernaut they were under Summitt. With the Vols vulnerable on the road, Sunday might offer a prime chance for the Cats to knock off their bitter rivals for only the fourth time this century.

2. Outside title shot

I said the Cats repeating as SEC regular season champs is unlikely, not impossible.

For the Cats to reclaim the trophy, Tennessee must lose at Texas A&M on Feb. 28. Georgia must also lose at least one game of its final two, at Mississippi State (4-10 SEC) and against Vanderbilt (8-6 SEC) in Athens, Ga.

After all of that, UK must then win its final two games at bottom-of-the-barrel Ole Miss (2-12 SEC) and against Tennessee in Memorial Coliseum.

If A&M also beats LSU on March 3, the Aggies, Vols and Cats will all sit atop the SEC with identical records of 13-3. UK would then hold the tiebreaker against the other two teams and would be crowned SEC champs once again.

Not impossible, just improbable.

3. NCAA seeding

Beating Tennessee on Sunday would give the Cats another quality win over a ranked opponent and help secure a better seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Right now, UK looks poised for a No. 3 seed. Beat the Vols and win a couple in the SEC Tournament — or the whole thing — and UK has a strong case for a No. 2 seed, meaning the Cats wouldn’t face a No. 1 seed until the Elite Eight.

A No. 3 seed would likely mean playing a No. 2 seed in the Sweet 16.

A deep run is still possible even without the confidence of winning a conference title. Consider Texas A&M in 2011.

The Aggies, then in the Big 12, fell short of Baylor in the regular season and the conference tournament, losing 61-58 in the championship game.

A&M entered the NCAA Tournament a No. 2 seed and met Baylor once again in the Elite Eight, claiming victory and going on to win the national title.

If the Cats had to choose between a SEC title and celebrating in New Orleans after the last game of the season … well, just ask UK’s men’s basketball team from last season how that feels.