The preseason is done. The new year is upon us. And now it is time for Kentucky to embark upon their quest for conference supremacy.
While conventional wisdom might lead one to believe that the Number 1 ranked Wildcats will blow through conference play like a deep south tornado, the truth is that regular season titles in the SEC have not been easy to come by of late.
The surprising reality is that Kentucky has won the SEC outright only three times in the past 10 seasons. Despite the tremendous success of John Calipari’s tenure, the Cats have only taken home the regular season title twice in his first five seasons at the school.
And while the SEC has not been one of the stronger power conferences in basketball the past few years, this year could be different. As of this moment on the eve of conference play, at least nine SEC teams have realistic hopes to compete for an NCAA tourney bid, and that doesn’t include perennial national championship contender Florida, which has been decimated by injuries up to this point.
There are 8 SEC teams in the top 50 of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and teams such as Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Arkansas have shown the ability to beat highly ranked teams.
With Kentucky wearing a big blue and white target on its back as the top ranked team in the country, the Cats are sure to have their hands full on more than a few occasions, especially on nasty winter nights in hostile opposing gyms.
And while the SEC is not always known as a hotbed of great basketball programs, it is consistently among the most athletic conferences in America and this year is no different. While no one will possess near the all-around talent as Kentucky, there are a handful of teams with the size, speed and athleticism to make things interesting.
The following are the dates we have circled as most interesting conference clashes for the Wildcats:
Jan. 24 – at South Carolina
In 2009-10, Kentucky was 16-0 and No. 1 in the country going into a January game in Columbia. The Wildcats fell to a Devin Downey-led SC team that ended the season under .500. But on that night, the crowd was raucous and the Gamecocks were very physical, blocking 8 shots and pushing Kentucky around. Kentucky lost on the same floor last year. This year’s Carolina team is quick and has some talented young players. They play typical Frank Martin-style tenacious defense. Kentucky cannot overlook this one.
Feb. 10 – at LSU
LSU is a very athletic team with some size inside and good guard play. Overall, the tandem of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin in the paint gives LSU a front line that should be at least able to hold its own with Kentucky’s imposing big men. Again, this is a venue where Kentucky has struggled in the past, so this game should be no exception.
Feb. 17 – at Tennessee
A week later, the Cats will travel to Knoxville where they will meet a dangerous Tennessee team that possesses a lot of long, rangy athletes and an excellent all-around player in Josh Richardson. The Vols have played a tough schedule, where they’ve hung with and beat some tournament quality teams. This could be an interesting late season road game.
Feb. 28 – Arkansas
While we have trouble seeing anyone coming into Rupp and beating Kentucky this year, Arkansas probably has the best chance of any SEC team. The Razorbacks have a future pro in Bobby Portis and experienced veterans like Michael Qualls and Rashad Madden who have the experience of beating Kentucky twice last year, including once in Lexington. If the Hogs have a chance here, it will likely be due to their frenetic pace and pressure.go back