Kentucky mens basketball seeks 33rd SEC Tournament championship in Nashville


Jack Weaver

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari coaches his team during the Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt mens basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee. Kentucky won 69-53. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

Kentucky mens basketball enters the SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, in search of its 33rd tournament championship in program history.

Having over three times the amount of tournament titles as any other team in the conference, the Wildcats had been the epitome of success in the SEC for decades, being the first college basketball program to reach 2,000 wins and claiming a staggering 49 regular season SEC championships.

Despite that, a potential win in Nashville would mark the first conference tournament championship for Kentucky since 2018, having won the regular season title in 2020 before the tournament was canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since that 2018 title, Kentucky struggled to regain its glory, missing the NCAA Tournament for only the second time of the John Calipari-era in 2021 and being upset by No. 15 Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season after falling to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) and St. Peter’s Peacocks forward Hassan Drame (14) dive for a loose ball during the UK vs. Saint Peter’s mens basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Gainbridge Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. UK lost 85-79 in overtime. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

While the Vols did go on to win that tournament, outlasting potential bid thief Texas A&M, the only thing many Kentucky fans took from the result was one thing: it had officially been five years since the Cats brought home gold.

The start of the 2022-23 season brought a load of promise for Calipari’s Cats to once again restock their trophy case, with the team earning the No. 4 slot in the preseason AP Top 25 and the inaugural No. 1 spot in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, which gauge teams based on defensive and offensive efficiency.

Unfortunately for the Cats, they would never go above No. 4, rather dropping out of the top 25 entirely after the week eight poll and beginning conference play 0-1 with an 89-75 loss to Missouri in Columbia.

While the Cats would bounce back with a win over then 12-1 LSU, the Tigers would go on to finish dead last in the conference.

Things would reach a new low when they would be obliterated by 26 in Tuscaloosa against Alabama before losing a 28-game home winning streak with a loss against South Carolina, a team who went on to finish in the bottom four of the conference.

After that wake-up call, the Cats would surge, conquering then No. 5 Tennessee in Knoxville and going on a six-game conference winning streak that included wins over Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida.

While the Cats would lose three more conference games before the end of the season, a 32-point thrashing of Auburn and a win at Arkansas would leave fans optimistic heading into the conference tournament.

Entering the SEC Tournament with an overall record of 21-10 and a 12-6 conference record, the Cats earned the No. 3 seed in the conference, earning a double bye in the bracket.

Not playing until game 10, Kentucky is due to face either Vanderbilt, which it split its season series against, or LSU.

The Commodores, to their credit, finished the regular season with several key wins, including at Kentucky, finding themselves in the “next four out” of the NCAA Tournament bubble according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.

Having plenty to prove and a reason to fight, the Commodores are an opponent that Kentucky fans may be particularly hoping to avoid in the tournament.

Assuming Kentucky advances beyond its first game, the road doesn’t get any easier, with Kentucky most likely facing either Texas A&M, which is riding plenty of momentum into the tournament with a win over Alabama, or Arkansas, of which Kentucky split its regular season series against.

Beyond that, the championship game would almost certainly be against either Alabama, which Kentucky hasn’t seen since the thrashing in Tuscaloosa, or Tennessee, which has struggled since losing Zakai Zeigler to a torn ACL. Another potential opponent would be Missouri, which snuck its way back into the AP Top 25 in the final week of the regular season.

Regardless, Kentucky will face an uphill battle if it wishes to once again bring home gold to Lexington. The journey will kick off for the Cats on Friday, March 10, at 9 p.m. EST. The game will be aired live on the SEC Network.

In the meantime, Vanderbilt and LSU will tip off at 9 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 9, with that game airing live on the SEC Network as well.