Victory proves UK can still win the East

The national pundits have been saying all year how the Southeastern Conference is having a down year. Two-time defending national champion Florida doesn’t have the same firepower, and only three teams are ranked.

According to that logic then, yes, the SEC is down. But in terms of excitement, you need look no further than the Kentucky basketball team’s first four conference games of the season.

Two of those four games went into overtime. The other two games came down to the gun and were decided by five and six points, respectively.

Which is exactly why the SEC is anything but down.

If UK’s first four conference games have displayed anything, it’s that this whole SEC race is wide open. UK is right in the mix of that uncertainty.

Last night, UK knocked off No. 3 Tennessee 72-66 in front of a nostalgic and noisy Rupp Arena crowd. With the win, UK now should have a new focus.

UK can’t get an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament anymore. That shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should be on the SEC Tournament.

UK is now only a game out of first place in the still very muddled SEC East. That puts them in a tie for third place.

UK’s goal now should be to win the East, and at worst, finish second. A first or second place finish gives them a bye into the SEC quarterfinals.

That makes a huge difference.

As for the big difference against Tennessee, two things stood out — free-throw shooting and a newfound post game.

After Tennessee’s Chris Lofton tied the game up at 60 with 2:19 left, UK made its last 12 free throws. Ramel Bradley hit eight from the stripe. Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson each made two.

Patterson went to the foul line because his teammates finally looked to get him the ball. At the forefront of that movement was Perry Stevenson.

Whenever Stevenson had the ball, he first looked to pass to Patterson. He looks for him for at least two seconds, hoping Patterson can create space if he was initially covered.

And, more often than not, Stevenson gets it to him. Opposing defenses double-team Patterson, leaving Stevenson open. He responded to all of the open looks by scoring 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds.

This win could turn into a huge disappointment if the Cats don’t capitalize on it like they didn’t capitalize on the Vanderbilt win in the conference opener.

South Carolina comes into Rupp on Saturday with a 1-2 league record. After that, UK travels to Georgia and Auburn. The Cats then get winless Alabama at home before heading to Nashville for a rematch.

That’s four opportunities for UK fans to reasonably expect wins. If UK does that, they would get to 6-2 in the league, and they would move to 4-1 against teams in the East. That would be important if the Cats want to get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the East.

That process will take a few weeks to materialize.

Right now, this might still be an average team with an above-average task. But by beating one of the nation’s top three teams, they showed that just about anything can happen this year in the SEC.

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