Silver linings: how Kentucky’s loss to Vanderbilt may signify NCAA Tournament success


Jack Weaver

Kentucky head coach John Calipari watches on during the No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 6 Vanderbilt mens basketball game in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, March 10, 2023, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt won 80-73. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

Kentucky basketball’s 80-73 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals was undeniably disappointing for the Wildcat fans in attendance. 

Despite that, the loss may have been one of the best things that could have happened to the squad.

First and foremost, something the team and head coach John Calipari themselves touched on, the additional days of rest give the team an opportunity to properly recover from injuries, with numerous players having suffered bumps and bruises in the closing weeks of the season.

Kentucky Wildcats guard CJ Fredrick (1) celebrates a 3-pointer during the Kentucky vs. Florida mens basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 72-67. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff (Jack Weaver)

Key names like Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick and Sahvir Wheeler have all missed time due to injury and, while a few days is far from enough to get all three back to 100%, the difference between 60% and 75% may make all the difference in the NCAA Tournament, a competition renowned for its win-or-go-home format.

“We’ve got to get three or four good practices in with the full team, it’s going to be vital,” Calipari said. “We need a couple of days to just recover from stuff right now. The next couple of days we’ll probably just need the recovery.”

The loss could spark a positive for another reason as well though, with the 2022-23 Cats seeming to perform their best after taking a disappointing loss since entering conference play back in December.

It was only after suffering arguably the most disappointing loss of the season, at home against South Carolina, that the Cats stormed into Thompson-Boling Arena and defeated then No. 5 Tennessee before erupting for a four-game win streak that also included a victory over Texas A&M.

Kentucky took another disappointing loss later in the year, at Georgia, before earning a key road win at Mississippi State that began another four-game winning streak that included another win over Tennessee and a dismantling of Auburn.

Finally, it was after a loss to the Commodores themselves that Kentucky took the court in Fayetteville and recorded a statement win to conclude the regular season against Arkansas.

Now, having suffered another disappointing loss, the pattern would suggest the Cats are due up for a big bounce-back victory come the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“Every time we’ve taken a spill and the whole country jumps on us, it seems like they come back with a vengeance,” Calipari said. “That is the plan, that’s the hope. We’ve won some really good games against really good teams, there’s teams across the country in their tournaments that are losing. It’s going to be nice to play somebody that doesn’t know us that well.”

Finally, staying on the topic of odd patterns, Kentucky has faced off against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament 12 times, now holding a 6-6 record against the Commodores.

Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) wins the tip-off during the No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 6 Vanderbilt mens basketball game in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, March 10, 2023, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff (Jack Weaver)

Interestingly, Kentucky has never won a national championship after beating Vanderbilt in the tournament, not making the tournament in 1940, finishing as the runners-up in the NIT in 1947, being knocked out by Ohio State in the region finals in 1961, being bested by Duke 104-103 in the Elite Eight in 1992, again falling in the Elite Eight in 2003, this time to Marquette, and being stunned by Saint Peter’s in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

Alternatively, prior to the 2023 tournament, Kentucky had a 40% chance of winning the NCAA Tournament in seasons that it lost to the Commodores in the SEC Tournament.

The Cats were defeated 61-57 by Vanderbilt in the 1951 SEC Final before going on to defeat Kansas State 68-58 in the 1951 NCAA Basketball Tournament for UK’s third national title.

Magic struck twice for the Wildcats in 2012 when they were defeated 71-64 by Vanderbilt in the SEC Championship before outlasting Kansas 67-59 in the 2012 National Championship for UK’s eighth national title.

Whether or not this percentage increases or decreases is yet to be determined with the 2023 NCAA Tournament due to kick off on Tuesday, March 14, with the commencement of the First Four.

Kentucky itself will play its first NCAA Tournament game on Friday, March 17, against the Providence Friars.

“Who’s more prepared for us than us?” Calipari asked after the matchup was unveiled. “We (the staff) are doing everything we can to prepare them, I named captains. It’s a different way of doing things. (They) know what they need to do, now (it’s just about) getting it done.”

Kentucky and Providence are due to tip off at 7:10 p.m. EST with the game set to air live on CBS.