Column: No. 5 Kentucky needs big week to cement place as championship contender


Kentucky Wildcats forward Lance Ware celebrates on the bench during the UK vs. Vanderbilt basketball game on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 77-70. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Hunter Shelton

With Selection Sunday less than five weeks away, Kentucky basketball faces one of its most important two-game stretches of the season.  

The Wildcats are currently riding a four-game winning streak, including two mammoth road victories against Kansas and Alabama.  

Following a 65-60 loss to LSU on Jan. 4, Kentucky has won seven of its last eight games, with its lone loss in that stretch coming against No. 1 Auburn on the road.  

UK bolted up the rankings over the past month, checking in at No. 5 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll.  

ESPN basketball analyst and “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi currently projects the Wildcats to land as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  

If Kentucky wants to stay in the good graces of bracketeers around the country and keep pace for second place in the SEC standings, it must take care of business in one of the lighter weeks the team has seen in over a month.  

First up is yet another road test, this time in Columbia against South Carolina on Tuesday.  

The Gamecocks check in at the middle of the pack in the SEC with a 13-9 (4-6 SEC) record.  

After an impressive win in College Station against Texas A&M, South Carolina has dropped its last two games in ugly fashion, losing by 14 points on the road against Mississippi State, then returning home for a 24-point loss at the hands of Tennessee.  

While they have taken care of business against the weaker competition in the SEC, the Gamecocks lack the talent necessary to compete with the big dogs. Simply put, Tuesday night inside Colonial Life Arena is a trap game for Kentucky.  

Road woes were at one point a theme for the Wildcats, as they opened the season 2-3 as the away team. Following the demolition of the Jayhawks and the Tide, UK has suggested that the bugaboo away from Rupp has been nipped in the bud.  

Regardless, winning on the road in SEC play does not come easy. UK head coach John Calipari has mentioned many times this season that when Kentucky comes rolling into town, it is the opposing team’s “Super Bowl.”  

A sold-out crowd will likely await the Wildcats in Columbia. The Gamecocks will have an opportunity to make a statement and try and stampede towards a higher seed in the SEC Tournament.  

If Kentucky wants to prove that they are on the echelon of fellow National Championship contenders, yet another statement victory needs to be made on Tuesday night, especially with an old rival coming to Lexington on the weekend.  

The Florida Gators will waltz into Rupp Arena on Saturday, Feb. 12, looking to earn a statement victory of their own. 

Lunardi currently pegs the Gators as one of the last four teams to make the tournament in March. What better way to boost your résumé than a stunner against the Cats in their home gym.  

The last time the two teams met, Florida did just that, fighting past UK 71-67 in Rupp on Feb. 27, 2021.  

Colin Castleton leads the 15-8 (5-5 SEC) Gators, averaging a team-high 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-11 senior will likely see his name on an All-SEC team just a couple of months down the road.  

Momentum has come and gone for UF this season. After losing its first three conference games of the season, the Gators would rattle off three consecutive victories. Following two more losses, Florida will welcome Georgia to Gainesville on Wednesday, Feb. 9 on a two-game winning streak.  

From a victory over Ohio State to a loss at home to Texas Southern, UF has run the gambit on outcomes this season.  

Kentucky has the talent to overpower both the Gamecocks and the Gators. As Calipari coached teams are used to, the Cats will be receiving the best shots of both teams as postseason time begins to rear its head. 

If UK is to cement itself as No. 1 seed potential, a firm and convincing 2-0 week against mid-tier opponents will be required to do the trick.