Kentucky did have a 2-0 week this past week, beating Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, but the past week isn’t worth looking back on… not this week, not this time.
By Matthew Zemek
For this weekly Kentucky column, it is best to look forward at the week to come, because it is a huge week for the Wildcats. They host Florida on Saturday, and before that, they travel to Baton Rouge on Tuesday to face LSU.
This week begins the closing six-game stretch of SEC regular-season play. In these six games, Kentucky faces Florida twice, LSU and Auburn once. The Cats get breaks on the schedule against Texas A&M and Tennessee, but four of their six games figure to be especially challenging. It is “go time” for John Calipari’s team.
Mid-February is a time when good college basketball teams (Kentucky is good; the Cats are NOT yet great, but they ARE good) can get a little bored or distracted. In a long season, coaches and players know they have to be on their game in March, so in the middle of February, a “whiling away the minutes” kind of vibe can creep into a locker room. The centrality of March can erode a team’s focus in February. This isn’t automatic, but it certainly happens a lot. It feels like it has happened to Kentucky.
Big Blue certainly looked like a team which was waiting for bigger games to arrive when it played Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Kentucky has done a lot of scrambling in the final 10 minutes of a game to rescue the first 30 minutes of a game. Calipari might not have a lot of upperclassmen on his UK teams, but “senioritis” can apply to freshmen and sophomores. When students aren’t challenged or don’t think every moment contains supreme consequence, they can behave without the amount of urgency they need for their biggest tests… because those big tests haven’t yet arrived.
To be fair to Kentucky’s players, their “bet” – in a sense – has paid off. The Wildcats are in first place in the SEC despite their very inconsistent play. They have dragged through a lot of the season, and yet they haven’t paid an enormous price. Yeah, their NCAA Tournament seeding will be limited by the South Carolina loss, but this team’s worst moments came before 2020, not within 2020.
Well, here we are, and finally, UK’s players know that the big lights and the big stage have arrived. Now come the kinds of games which aren’t worth dragging through… and can’t afford to be taken with less than 100-percent seriousness. LSU might have lost three games in the past few weeks, and Florida might be a bubble team, but these are teams which demand Kentucky’s full attention.
LSU was the No. 1 seed in the 2019 SEC Tournament. If Kentucky wants the top seed in the 2020 SEC Tournament, beating LSU is a top priority, especially since the Wildcats have already lost to Auburn. Kentucky can’t go into the rest of its SEC schedule with losses to both LSU and Auburn if it wants to win tiebreakers in the event of a tie in the standings.
Florida, as a bubble team, will try to beat Kentucky to get off the bubble and go safely into the NCAA Tournament. The first of two meetings will be in Rupp Arena, but as UK’s Rupp games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt have shown, playing at home offers no assurance that Big Blue will play well. Kentucky has arrived at the point in the season when full-fledged excellence needs to become the expectation and the outcome. Is UK likely to attain that standard? No, to be honest… but the Wildcats now have no excuse to “dump emotional fuel” from their tanks. These two games ought to elicit a robust response from opening tip to final horn. If the Wildcats don’t deliver as much, it will be time to worry about a team whose seeding ceiling is already lower than past Calipari teams.
Being bored against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss is no great sin… unless that same uneven level of play continues into this week. The season now becomes different for Kentucky. If the Wildcats can’t display more urgency now, their March seeding and bracket path will become that much harder to deal with.