Kentucky basketball: Wildcats facing Mt. Everest challenge in SEC Tournament

Kentucky basketball has big SEC Tournament mountain to climb

The regular season has come to a close and now there is no more room for clunkers for the Kentucky basketball team as it faces a mountain to climb if they hope to reach the summit and win its 32nd Southeastern Conference Tournament title.

Over the years Kentucky has completely dominated the SEC Tournament claiming 31 of the 59 titles. The rest of the SEC team’s combined titles is 28.

However, since the SEC began seeding teams in the 1979 tournament the Wildcats have never won the title when they were not one of the top four seeds.

Not good news for this year’s team as it enters play on Thursday as the No. 8 seed and will face off with No. 9 Mississippi State at Noon on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

What lies ahead is winning 4 straight tournament games in 4 days, something they last did in 1952. It marks the first time since 2013 they have not had an opening game bye.

Davion Mintz, who has been the hottest Wildcat said Wildcat fans should not count this team out.

“It’s never too late. I’ve got faith. God is real and things happen for a reason. If we have a chance to go out there and play for 40 minutes, it’s never too late. We’ll see next week.”

When the SEC Tournament bracket was released there was little drama and suspense for Kentucky since it has been hanging around in eighth place much of this season. The loss to Ole Miss last week sealed the deal and ended any hope of moving up and to the bottom half of the bracket with an easier path to Championship Sunday.

2021 SEC Tournament seeding

1) Alabama Crimson Tide (21-6, 16-2)
2) Arkansas Razorbacks (21-5, 13-4)
3) LSU Tigers (16-8, 11-6)
4) Tennessee Volunteers (17-7, 10-7)
5) Florida Gators (13-8, 9-7)
6) Ole Miss Rebels (15-10, 10-8)
7) Missouri Tigers (15-8, 8-8)
8) Kentucky Wildcats (9-15, 8-9)
9) Mississippi State Bulldogs (14-13, 8-10)
10) Georgia Bulldogs (14-11, 7-11)
11) South Carolina Gamecocks (6-14, 4-12)
12) Vanderbilt Commodores (8-15, 3-13)
13) Texas A&M Aggies (8-9, 2-8)

It is what is and coach John Calipari must now lead the Wildcats on a quest to scale the mountain one game at a time that will take four victories to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky is seeking its seventh SEC Tournament championship under Calipari. They are looking to advance to its ninth SEC Tournament title game in the last 12 seasons, which includes the cancellation of last season’s tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, history does favor the Wildcats who are 134-26 all-time in the SEC Tournament. The 2019 loss in the semifinals – the last time a tournament was played – ended a run of four straight SEC Tournament championships and 13 straight wins in the conference tournament.

They knocked off Tennessee 78-72 to win the 2018 title behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s MVP 29 point, 7 rebound championship performance.

Isaiah Jackson is up for the challenge but knows the approach his teammates have to take no matter how tough.

“One game at a time. We try not to think about the future. We just try to stay in the present. That’s the only thing that we can change or do anything about is the present. So, that’s what we’re doing. Taking it one game at a time, one day at a time, practice and everything. So, just getting prepared.”

The path that lies ahead would be beating Mississippi State whom they edged 78-73 in double overtime back on January 3 to kick off the SEC regular season and ended a six-game losing streak.  Dontaie Allen tallied a career-high 23 points and seven 3-pointers in the win.

The Wildcats are 8-2 all-time vs. the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament.  Mississippi State is the only team yet to beat the Wildcats in the Calipari era.

Next in line would be top-seeded Alabama, a team Kentucky has fallen to twice this season 85-65 and 70-59. The Crimson Tide is heavily favored to win the title but Arkansas is on fire at the moment.

This matchup would mark the fifth time in the last six seasons UK and the Tide would tangle in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats have won all four of the previous matchups and are 17-2 against Alabama in the league tournament and 6-1 in the quarterfinals.

If Kentucky can somehow win and recover then Saturday would have Tennesee waiting for another battle with the Vols and Rick Barnes. The teams split games in the regular season with the Cats falling 82-71 in Rupp but dismantling the orange in Knoxville 70-55 four games ago.

There is the chance Florida could be waiting if they happen to beat Tennessee. This was also a split for UK and the Gators with the Wildcats pounding Florida 76-58 early on but falling 71-67 three games ago in a game they should have won.

Should they still be standing somehow and not exhausted it would be a championship matchup with either Arkansas or LSU. Kentucky topped LSU 82-69 in their only meeting and dropped another winnable game 81-80 to Arkansas.

Calipari and his team have their map in hand and what it will take to reach the peak and if reach the crest they would be the most talked-about team in the country.

They just have to harness Saturday’s performance win over South Carolina into four more.

Calipari is hoping somehow Big Blue Nation will as usual find a way to fill the limited number of seats in Nashville.

“Every team I’ve coached, at the other two schools (UMASS and Memphis) too, we were in the same position that when you look back, we have gone through the war and we have been scarred, but it prepares us. Every game we play ends up being a two-bucket game right down to the stretch. And we’re fighting with every team, and you know what, that’s what prepares you. … They are prepared, just like all the other teams here.”

Kentucky loves playing in the Music City and has won the SEC Tournament four times under Calipari in Nashville.

The Wildcats opener will be televised by SEC Network with Karl Ravech and Jimmy Dykes on the call and moves over to ESPN for the remaining games. Kentucky would play the early game throughout with the championship slated for 1 pm.