Cats face tough road to SEC victory


Kentucky Wildcats guard Davion Mintz (10) lays the ball up 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

Kentucky is headed to Nashville off its largest conference win of the year and biggest margin of victory since its season-opening game against now-Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State. The Cats’ collective confidence couldn’t be higher, and that’s a good thing; they’ll need every ounce of it to claw their way to an NCAA Tournament berth.

For the first time since 2009, Kentucky will not enter the conference tournament with the benefit of a bye to the quarterfinal round. The Cats, slotted in the SEC’s eighth spot – their lowest ever since the league expanded in 2013 – have never not possessed the vaunted double bye (2013 onward) before, making the path to victory even more difficult.

An even longer streak was broken by the team who finished at the top of the conference. On the back of a 20-6 (15-2 SEC) campaign, Alabama notched the SEC No. 1 seed for just the second time this century (2002). Head coach Nate Oats is the favorite for conference coach of the year fol-lowing the unexpectedly dominant showing, which made the Crimson Tide the first SEC regular season champions in both basketball and football since Florida in 2007.

Alabama’s primary challenger is one of the two teams it fell to in conference play and only other team to record 20 total victories: Arkansas. The Razorbacks, led by coach Eric Musselman, defeated Alabama 81-66 in Fayetteville on Feb. 24 and boast the fifth-highest point per game average in the country (83.2). If they can navigate their way to a championship game appearance, they’ll have full faith in their ability to bring home the bacon.

LSU is locked into the three seed after beating fellow Tiger school Missouri 86-80 on Saturday evening. Will Wade’s crew is the only top-three conference foe the Cats knocked off in 2021. The second-best offensive team in the SEC (82.5 PPG, seventh in the nation) is capable of lighting up the scoreboard on anyone, but also let everyone rack up points – 75.2 PPG allowed, fourth worst in the conference – in return, as evidenced by Kentucky’s then season-high 82 versus them back at Rupp Arena on Jan. 23.

Tennessee and Florida, who the Cats earned double-digit wins against on the road but lost to at home, are the fourth and fifth seeds respectively. The Vols clinched the final double-bye due to a 65-54 win over the Gators in Knoxville on Sunday. The result keeps Ole Miss in the six spot.

Kentucky’s first opponent is Mississippi State, whom the Cats prevailed over 78-73 in double overtime on Jan. 2. Dontaie Allen displayed his talents in impressive fashion, recording 23 points off the bench to end a six-game losing streak. The Bulldogs, who come into the matchup at 14-13 (8-10 SEC), will look to avenge their heartbreaking defeat when they meet.

If the Cats are able to get by Ben Howland’s bunch, they’ll book a date with the Crimson Tide. Alabama swept Kentucky for the first time since 1989 behind a dominant 85-65 showcase at Rupp Arena and a more competitive, closer than indicated 70-59 margin in Coleman Coliseum. Three-pointers are the name of the game for the Tide, who connected on 14 treys in their 20-point win. They only hit six deep balls in their rematch, but countered with 24 makes at the charity stripe to pull away late. Likely All-SEC selection John Petty tallied 23 points to pace his team in the first meeting, while Jaden Shackelford’s 21 led ‘Bama the second go round.

Seven seed Missouri is the tournament dark horse. After dealing the Tide its first SEC defeat 68-65 on Feb. 6, the Tigers are only 2-5 in their past seven contests. But Cuonzo Martin’s men have demonstrated an ability to reign supreme over some of the country’s best, including expected NCAA No. 1 seed Illinois in Columbia and Arkansas in treacherous Bud Walton Arena.

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Missouri and Tennessee all find themselves among the projected NCAA Tournament field for both ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm. The two Bracketologists also have Ole Miss among their top bubble squads outside the 68-team seed list. This means the Cats, barring any unforeseen upsets, will have to circumvent three March Madness participants to become one themselves. They’d also have to do something they haven’t managed to accomplish in 2020-21: win four games in a row.

The odds unsurprisingly slim. But they’ve been that way all season long. If John Calipari didn’t think this cast was still capable of greatness, he wouldn’t have been in discussions to host unbeaten Gonzaga a week ago. If the players didn’t believe they were able to compete with the nation’s top team, they wouldn’t have been excited at that possibility. Whether they can actually put it all together long enough to make their run though remains to be seen.

The Cats and Bulldogs square off at 12:00 p.m. E.T. on Thursday for the right to battle Alabama at the same time on Friday. Kentucky’s first broadcast is set for SEC Network.