Last Chance to Dance: Can Kentucky save its season with an SEC Tournament victory?


Kentucky Wildcats guard Davion Mintz (10) is lifted up after winning the game with a last minute three pointer during the University of Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt men’s basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 77-74. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Braden Ramsey

As everyone expected, this year’s Kentucky team reset a number of notable program marks – just not the positive kind. Three Wildcat records – the overall regular season of 9-15, SEC play at 8-9 and 1-6– represent the worst winning percentage for the program since the 1926-27 season. Only the 1988-89 squad, Eddie Sutton’s final year as Kentucky’s head coach, is comparable at 8-10 in the SEC.

Those numbers came in the wake of recruiting and academic violations; these lie in the shadow of an international pandemic. No matter the circumstances, Kentucky fans won’t ever be truly satisfied with such a poor year. But would a run to the SEC title salvage a piece of the 2020-21 season? The answer depends on expectations.

Diana Parks, a sophomore and community leadership/physical therapy double major, said watching the team has been rough but she knows the coaches and players are trying their best.

“I know if we want to get into the NCAA tournament, we have to win the SEC championship,” Parks said. “So maybe that’d be like a big motivational for us, kind of like a nice little last push for us to finish it all.”

But students have doubts that Kentucky can correct a disastrous season, even if they do well in the tournament.

“It’s been brutal. It hasn’t been too good. I mean, it’s probably the worst season that I could possibly think of in the history of the school,” Trey Conrad, a freshman finance major, said of Kentucky’s performances.

Sophomore Alec Smith said it wouldn’t be an easy road to victory in the SEC tournament, which Kentucky has to win to have a chance at the NCAA championships.

“I think they’ve really shown that at times this season, they definitely can put together a run,” Smith said. He thinks success in the SEC will be dependent on Kentucky’s shooting.

Coming off a COVID-shortened campaign where they retained only one role player (Keion Brooks Jr.) from, the Cats’ expectations were through the roof. Transfers Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz were destined to join Brooks as the elder statesmen of the roster, showing touted freshmen B.J. Boston, Terrence Clarke and Isaiah Jackson, among others, the tales of the trade. John Calipari looked to have a versatile bunch that would be able to execute his patented defensive strategy at a high level and attack opposing teams in a variety of ways offensively. 

The season-opening display, an 81-45 victory over Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State, only further solidified this belief, and had a number of prognosticators questioning why Kentucky only came in at No. 10 in the initial top-25 AP Poll.

But that showing proved to be a mirage. The optimism of game one quickly waned with each successive loss in the non-conference, including a blowout defeat to seemingly inferior Georgia Tech and neutral court mishaps against Kansas and North Carolina. 

“It’s been frustrating just a little bit because, you know, they start off rough, obviously. And then they had that a midseason spark of hope looked like, and then they kind of fall right back into what they are now,” Smith said.

The Cats even fell to typical little brother Louisville, who is set to make the NCAA Tournament but isn’t anything special. The defense remained locked down, but the offense was forced to return to basics, handcuffing Cal’s playbook. 

“This isn’t like my past teams,” Calipari said after a 75-70 loss to Missouri. “We went to the circle [play] but couldn’t get guys open.” 

The inability to score, or even to try to score, persisted throughout much of the conference slate.

“No one wanted to shoot,” Calipari said following a loss at Auburn. “We missed wide-open shots.”

Students see the team’s issues as stemming from a lack of cohesion.

“We have a lot of new incoming freshmen and transfer students because I kind of think we didn’t get to be able to like bond this season,” Parks said. “And I just think like with the COVID, and a lot of the fans and supports not being there the atmosphere in Rupp Arena is kind of different.”

“I feel like a lot of the problem is almost teammate chemistry. It doesn’t even look like all the guys are in sync,” Conrad said.

“We don’t have a guy we can throw it to, and he goes one-on-one and gets by anybody,” Calipari said after a loss to Alabama that had Kentucky shooting 2-9 in the last seven minutes. “We don’t have that guy… we have to do it different.”

Shooting struggles continued, costing Kentucky even in games where they had the lead.

 “We are playing good enough to win, and then we hit a stretch where we don’t score a basket,” Calipari said after a loss to Tennessee.

Since that Volunteer loss though, the tide has shifted somewhat. Kentucky has notched 70 or more points in five of seven games from then on, and has eclipsed the 80 plateau four times, culminating in a rousing 92-64 shellacking of South Carolina on Saturday. This has come at the expense of its effectiveness defensively but has enabled a 4-2 record to close the regular season, the lone six-game stretch the Cats have with more W’s than L’s. 

The absolute best-case scenario for Kentucky to end the year is claiming the SEC’s auto-bid by virtue of a conference tournament title and a double-digit seed in the Big Dance. The ceiling for teams in similar positions has historically been a Sweet Sixteen. Would that be satisfactory? It depends on personal expectations. 

Freshman finance major John Farah said there are signs of life for Kentucky.

“We definitely show potential against better teams,” Farah said. “We play better, but not enough to win and then against bad teams we just played terribly.”

Farah said he was ‘pretty damaged’ from football and does not mind UK’s poor performance in basketball as much.

“If I really cared about it, it would definitely hurt a lot,” Farah said.

He said he sees problems with players not living up to their potential. But with some coaching adjustments, he thinks they have a shot in the SEC tournament.

“Anything’s possible cause we got the talent. It’s just really a matter of Cal’s coaching, if you can pull it together,” Farah said.

Anthony Volkovitsky is less optimistic about the team’s chances of saving the season with an SEC championship.

“I don’t think so,” Volkovitsky said of taking home the SEC title. “I mean, maybe if they figure out like defense and all that, but we’ll see.”

Volkovitsky, a freshman biology major, said he saw the team’s struggles coming in advance.

“You want them to pull through, but like, you just feel like it’s gonna happen because of past games,” Volkovitsky said of the season.

Students expressed hope that UK can learn from their mistakes this season to improve next year.

“They can go back and look at film and kind of regroup and re-strategize what they want to accomplish next season,” Parks said.

Conrad thinks that’s where the team’s mind should be at, with the low chance of making it through to the NCAA tournament.

“There’s always a shot that you can do that,” Conrad said. “But at this point it’s almost just like, you know, get better for next year type thing, but I’m not sure anything can happen in post season.”

Of small comfort to fans is the struggles of other traditionally dominant teams.

“Duke, North Carolina, us – Kentucky – all having a little bit of rough years, and that makes me think maybe some of COVID,” Smith said. “So I’m not necessarily surprised because it’s a bunch of freshmen out there that haven’t played together and they had less time to get their season prepared together and stuff.”

Conrad, who is from Louisville, said that on one hand it’s nice to finally see UK go down hard – but as a student who was looking forward to cheering for a top team, the season “kind of sucks.”

Jack Weaver contributed reporting.