Cats’ season isn’t over but getting close to it

Column by Jonathan Smith

The season isn’t over. It might seem like it, but it’s only halfway gone.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino pointed this out to the media after his Cardinals had just beat UK 89-75 Saturday.

This isn’t football, he said, where one loss can end a team’s title chances. This is basketball. It’s not time to panic yet.

Easy for you to say, coach. Your team just improved to 10-4 on the year, and the Cards have a healthy roster for the first time all season.

Try telling UK fans not to panic. They should panic, just like Rudy Giuliani should be panicking right now.

This UK basketball team is not good at all.

They don’t get enough out of the guards, and they rely too much on freshman forward Patrick Patterson. Without sophomore guards Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks for much of the schedule so far, those other shortcomings have had more impact on the early season struggles.

That said, however, the season isn’t over. Not by a long shot. UK can look forward to the second half of the season for a number of reasons.

First, what’s in the past is in the past. Coaches and players often say a season consists of two parts, the non-conference play and the conference games. And given the way the non-conference schedule turned out, UK will welcome the 16-game Southeastern Conference slate.

More good news about the SEC schedule for the Cats: The conference isn’t as good as it has been in years past.

The best team in the nation isn’t in the conference anymore. Only three teams are ranked, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Mississippi, but combined, Vandy and Ole Miss have beaten one ranked team. UK is bad, but so are Louisiana State, South Carolina, Georgia, Auburn and Florida.

The league is as wide open as it has ever been. UK was leading a Final Four caliber team at halftime on Saturday. That means they can compete with Tennessee and Vanderbilt and everyone else in the SEC, especially now that they are at full strength.

“We wanted to come in and get a win against a very good team and have some momentum going into conference play, but we didn’t do that,” senior guard Ramel Bradley said after the U of L loss. “We just have to look forward going into the new season.”

That brings up the next point: The SEC Tournament still awaits the Cats at the end of the season. Win that, and UK gets into the NCAA Tournament. Unless the Cats go 13-3 or better in the SEC, they’re going to have to win the conference tournament to get into the Big Dance.

We’ve seen before that anything can happen in the conference tournament.

In 1996, Mississippi State beat UK in the tournament after the Cats went 16-0 in the SEC. In 2000, Arkansas won four games in four days to win the tournament. Last year, the Razorbacks won three games in the tournament that got them an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“We have a lot to look forward to going into SEC play,” Bradley said.

Keep in mind that UK has won 25 SEC Tournaments compared to 22 from the rest of the league. Teams don’t forget that.

Nor will anyone forget about UK’s first 13 games this season. But that season is over. The second season is just beginning.

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