UK’s success in conference play is almost impossible to explain

In the pre-Southeastern Conference schedule, UK lost to San Diego and got crushed by Gardner-Webb. (Quick GW update: the Runnin’ Bulldogs are 9-5 in the Atlantic Sun Conference and 15-13 overall, hardly the Cat killers they seemed to be in early November.)

Right now, the Cats are relying on contributions from about six players. The rest of the roster is inadequate when they do play, or not adequate enough in practice to play.

On Saturday against Arkansas, only five players scored for UK. Of the players that are scoring for the Cats, they’re not doing it enough. UK is 10th in SEC play in points per game.

So the Cats were awful in the first 13 games of the season, they have absolutely no depth and a lot of fringe talent, and they have a hard time scoring.

And yet they’re 9-3 in the SEC. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

“By the way the season started, no I can’t (believe UK is 9-3 in the SEC),” freshman forward Patrick Patterson said. “At the very beginning of the season, I didn’t think we’d be at the point that we are now.”

So how in the world is this team in second place in the SEC East? How have they won three games in a row and eight of their last nine? How did they beat a much more talented and deeper Arkansas team 63-58 this weekend, a team that UK head coach Billy Gillispie said was one of the most talented teams in the country?

It’s impossible to point to one specific reason why UK has been so successful in SEC play. You know why? Because it’s so unclear. But here’s an attempt to explain the unexplainable.

One factor is how well UK has played in late-game situations. UK has played nine SEC games that have been decided by eight points or less. They’re 8-1 in those games.

The main reason for those wins: UK’s two seniors, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. Both have hit big shots down the stretch in some of those games, Bradley with a difficult step-back jump shot against Arkansas on Saturday and Crawford’s layup against Vanderbilt in the SEC opener that gave UK the lead for good in double overtime.

Against Arkansas, both players made huge plays in the final minute to help UK win.

Crawford partially blocked a Sonny Weems shot with 56 seconds left and the Cats leading by just three points. Bradley hit 4-of-6 free throws in the final 22 seconds to seal the victory.

“Our seniors were fantastic today down the stretch, just as clutch as you can possibly be,” Gillispie said.

The clutch play of UK’s two seniors isn’t the only reason why they’ve had success in the conference.

UK is second in the conference in scoring defense. The Cats are first in free throw percentage, something that makes a huge difference in those close games. Patterson leads the league in minutes played and has been as reliable and effective as any other player in the SEC.

Those are all great. These may be even bigger factors.

The Cats have all said they’ve adjusted to Gillispie’s coaching. They’ve gotten their confidence back from the 6-7 start to the season. And they’ve taken every game, no matter how cliché it is, one at a time.

“Since the start of conference play, coach was like, ‘I really think that y’all can win the conference. Just keep playing hard and keep believing in each other and you all can win it. You can beat Tennessee, you can beat Vanderbilt, you can beat Arkansas,’ ” Patterson said.

Gillispie was right. They’ve beaten all three of those teams, and they have worked themselves into NCAA Tournament consideration.

Crazy, isn’t it?

Jonathan Smith is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]