John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats are in position to do what Rick Pitino regularly did, and what Tubby Smith did in the earlier and more successful part of his Kentucky tenure… and what Cal himself has usually done: Win the SEC Tournament.
By Matt Zemek
Pitino won the event five times. Tubby won it five times, and Calipari has won it six times. Kentucky has won 16 of the last 27 SEC Tournaments, an outright majority. Other teams get a mere nibble here and there. Billy Donovan and Florida represented the one true interruption of Kentucky’s dominance at the SEC Tournament over the past 27 years, winning three times in a row in the mid-2000s and collecting four SEC Tournament titles overall. Billy D is the only non-Kentucky coach to have won the SEC Tournament at least four times since 1992.
Mississippi State is the only program other than Kentucky and Florida which has won the SEC Tournament more than once since 1992. That feat is split between two coaches, Richard Williams and Rick Stansbury. Four SEC schools won one and only one SEC Tournament in the past 27 seasons: Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Georgia. Three of those four teams (the Rebels, Commodores, Hogs and Dawgs) were double-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament even AFTER winning the SEC Tournament. They were NIT teams entering the SEC Tournament and went on remarkable runs which haven’t been replicated at all.
Kentucky stands alone at the SEC Tournament, a marked contrast to the ACC, where North Carolina does not have — and has not had — a monopoly on conference tournament championships. (Duke had a ridiculous run from 1999-2011, but for the most part, the wealth gets spread around in the ACC Tournament.)
History doesn’t win the next year’s conference tournament. Kentucky isn’t the favorite because it has won the past four events, but those dancers at a nightclub — Aura and Mystique — aren’t entirely irrelevant to any set of predictions, either. History is part of the backdrop, the kind of thing which might break a tie in the mind’s thought process if one is unsure of whom to pick.
This does stand out as an SEC Tournament in which uncertainty prevails.
LSU might have been the favorite, given that it avoids Kentucky and Tennessee in the semifinals, but the Will Wade situation has changed all that.
Tennessee whacked Kentucky in Knoxville, but that was a game UT desperately needed to win, much as Kentucky desperately needed to win the first game in Rupp Arena. On a neutral floor, UT versus UK is a mystery.
The Wildcats have their own mystery: Reid Travis. When will he play, and how effective will he be when he plays?
Calipari had this to say about Travis after this past Saturday’s win over Florida:
“I’ve absolutely stayed out of it,” said Calipari. “I really haven’t even talked to the doctors, because these kids know their bodies, and I don’t want him or anyone to think that I’m pushing him to play if he’s not. If he’s not right. I just say: “How are you feeling?”
“I’m getting better.”
“Here’s what’s good. It’s not an ACL. He sprained his knee,” Calipari said. “If he plays, I’ll be doing backflips. If not, we’ll figure it out.”
“Reid came as a graduate student from Stanford, all-Pac 10 (12), MVP of their league. (He) comes here to say, ‘I want to grow. I want to grow on and off the court. I want to take and soak everything up.’ And you know what? What a pleasure it’s been to coach him, and I’ll tell you. Without Reid, we would not be sitting where we are right now, with a chance to do something special.
“We need him to do something special, but he’s coming back from an injury. (He’s) just a joy to coach, so engaged with the coaches, so focused on what we’re doing, so much of a talent is as far as his commitment and his drive, and his energy in what he does. I’m really proud of him.”
Calipari should be proud of Travis, and yet last week without him, Kentucky went 2-0 against decent SEC teams, Ole Miss and Florida.
Notice the emphasis, however, on the word “decent.” That’s not the same as “great” or “elite” or “formidable.”
Only three teams deserve those labels in 2019 SEC basketball: Kentucky, Tennessee, and LSU. This brings up the simple point that for most of the season, the Cats, Vols and Tigers have not been tested by the best. This SEC season hasn’t been a total bust. The conference will get at least seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, which is a lot better than the league was a few seasons ago. Growth has been sustained. It merely hasn’t been taken to the next level.
The SEC didn’t get the 10-team tournament haul it hoped for, and of the teams outside the top three, none are likely to be seeded any higher than No. 6 in the NCAA Tournament, with the possible exception of Mississippi State, which might be a 5 seed. It raises the legitimate question: Will NCAA Tournament opponents ask questions the SEC’s top three are not fully prepared to answer? That includes Kentucky.
LSU’s season has been thrown under a dark cloud. Tennessee stumbled into the SEC Tournament, losing at Auburn.
Kentucky can handle those teams this coming week and lift yet another SEC Tournament trophy.
It’s the tournament after the SEC which Big Blue should worry about, starting with the brackets we will be talking about one week from today.