SEC East title hopes on the line in Knoxville

As a senior, guard Ramel Bradley would love the chance to play for the SEC East title on senior night at Rupp Arena. That possibility is closer than most would have thought at the start of conference play.

UK’s win over Ole Miss Wednesday night and Tennessee’s loss at Vanderbilt on Tuesday have put the Cats just one game behind the Volunteers in the SEC East division standings.

With UK traveling to Knoxville, Tenn., to play the Volunteers on Sunday, the stakes are obvious: win, and the Cats take first place in the East.

For a team that limped to a 6-7 start on the season and began its SEC schedule 1-2, a shot at a conference championship is an opportunity it does not want to waste.

“It would be an unbelievable feeling,” Bradley said. “If we put ourselves in the position to win a game and win the SEC, to do it at Rupp Arena on senior night, it would be unbelievable.”

The Cats are now 10-3 in Southeastern Conference play, assuring themselves of a better conference record than in each of the past two seasons.

UK defeated Tennessee 72-66 earlier this season, beginning a stretch of nine wins in its next 10 games.

But the Vols, 11-2 in the SEC, will be looking for revenge when the Cats visit Knoxville, a challenge senior guard Joe Crawford said he is ready for.

“They’re going to be gunning for us, just like Vanderbilt,” Crawford said. “It’s going to be a hostile environment. We’re going to have to come out and play like it’s a championship game.”

Last time UK went on the road, it was in a similar situation. Facing a ranked opponent it had already defeated at home, the Cats came out flat and were blown out by Vanderbilt. The ‘Dores held the Cats to just 11 first half points in route to a 41-point win, the largest margin of defeat to an SEC team ever for UK.

But the Cats bounced back and have won two straight over quality opponents — Arkansas and Ole Miss — setting up the meeting with No. 1 Tennessee.

The Cats will face one of the most raucous environments in the SEC on Sunday, Crawford said.

“It’s going to be very emotional,” he said. “I think Tennessee is the loudest environment we play in every year.

“They’re focusing in (after the loss). We’re going to have to go out there and fight.”

During the SEC coaches teleconference yesterday, head coach Billy Gillispie acknowledged that though he was not sure his team would end up this close to first place, he knew it would improve after battling through injury troubles that have plagued UK all season.

“If we knew that we were going to have relatively good health, I would’ve thought that our team was going to improve greatly. You never know how that’s going to equate to wins and losses,” Gillispie said.

“I never really think about where we’re going to be, a certain record at this point in the season, but I knew we were going to improve greatly,” he said.