Imagine it’s exactly one month from today- Sunday, March 17, 2013. Selection Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day, and, perhaps most importantly to UK fans right now, the SEC Tournament Championship game- a game which may be our golden parachute into the 2013 NCAA Tournament. You’re casually strolling among the honky-tonks, looking to kill some time by drinking a beer before the game. The million-dollar question: are the Cats playing in this game?
To try and help us get our Nostradamus hats on, I put the SEC standings as of today into the tournament bracket in a very sophisticated Photoshop job. Let’s see where the Cats are:
Currently, Kentucky is seeded third in the SEC– which sounds amazing, considering how painful the conference season has felt, but honestly it speaks more to the weakness of the conference than to Kentucky’s success (note: Kentucky and Ole Miss are both 8-4 in the SEC; however, because Kentucky won the head-to-head matchup, they would receive the higher seeding). However, with a little bit of luck, the Cats should hang on to three if not take over two from Alabama. Both teams still have to face Florida (the second time for the Cats), and Bama has to travel to Ole Miss on March 5, a game Cats fans may want to tune into.
But, I digress. Let’s focus on Kentucky’s half of the bracket and assume that Vandy beats an absolutely terrible Mississippi State team to face Arkansas. Now, Arkansas has been fearsome in the comfy confines of Bud Walton Arena, but they’ve lost every road conference game except Auburn. At a “neutral” site (neutral in quotes because Vandy resides in Nashville, obviously), I don’t see the Razorbacks rising above the Commodores.
Which leaves us with a Vandy-Kentucky matchup, part three. The first game, which the Cats won at Vandy, was all kinds of ugly, and I wrote that it felt like a loss (little did I know how much I would covet that win-that-feels-like-a-loss-but-is-still-a-win feeling a mere few weeks later). After an easy first half, the Fightin’ Kevin Stallings came out and played what WCS called “smash mouth basketball,” exposing the Cats’ inability to finish off an inferior team (note that Nerlens Noel was in foul trouble for most of the game, as Cassady pointed out in his earlier post). Now, five weeks later and without Nerlens Noel, the Cats must prepare for a Vandy team that has gone 4-7 since their last meeting. If Kentucky had made a halfway decent showing yesterday, I wouldn’t be worried. But they didn’t, and I am.
Let’s cut the Cats a break (I know none of you want to) and grant them a magical win over Vanderbilt. Playing at Bridgestone Arena is much friendlier than playing at the goofy gym, and Vandy can continue to shoot bricks from three-point range all they want. Let’s also assume that Bama’s fourth of the bracket holds true to seed as well. The Cats would earn a rematch with Alabama, whom they lost to by four points in slow, grind-it-out, low-scoring game. The Cats haven’t gotten much better since then in terms of offensive flow, but could they pull it together in a Cats-friendly arena? Well, Alabama’s offense hasn’t proven much better than Kentucky’s- they average 62 PPG and have had outings of 50 points (win against Texas A&M), 53 points (loss against Tennessee), and most embarrassingly, 37 points in a loss to Auburn. That is the definition of ugly basketball, folks. In fact, Alabama has only scored 68 points once since they did it on January 12 against Tennessee. Surely the Cats can outscore that, right?
I’m going yes, having faith the Wiltjer and Mays’ shooting will carry us through. That takes us through to the championship game, having only had to play two games against Vandy and Bama. The assumption here is that we face Florida, the Wicked Witch of the (Former) SEC East- unless Missouri or Ole Miss pulls the upset. Tuesday’s game of Florida at Mizzou will tell us a lot more about those probabilities. But since this entire post is based on conjecture, I say that Ole Miss has no chance of upsetting Florida (at least Marshall Henderson will get to go out on a Saturday in Nashville, right?)), and Mizzou has a slim chance. I think Florida whomps their way to Championship Sunday, no problem.
Which leaves us with Florida. Again. And unfortunately, I think that’s where the SEC road ends for the Cats. It may be a neutral, Cat-friendly environment, but I just don’t see Willie Cauley-Stein being able to contain Patric Young in the middle. Nor do I anticipate Florida having a poor shooting game from the outside. Florida has proven themselves to be dominant all season, and while they may have lost to Arkansas, every “top” team in college basketball has dropped a game in somewhat embarrassing fashion. That’s not going to happen with Florida in the SEC Tournament.
The million dollar question- would making the SEC Tournament Finals be enough to get the Cats in the NCAA Tournament? Matt’s told us that the selection committee doesn’t look at how much a team loses by, so a loss to a good Florida team, no matter how many points, might not reflect too poorly on us. I want to say making the finals would be good enough, but it’s ultimately going to depend on those other six games we have left. If the Cats go 4-2 and make it to the finals, sure, send us to the tournament. But 3-3? 2-4? It might not be enough.
After the week UK fans have had, I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I’m still going to Nashville for the SEC Tournament. My unequivocal answer? Hell yes. The SEC Tournament is not going to be what we’re used to, but it may be the most crucial SEC Tournament in recent Cats’ memory, and the team will need our support more than ever at that point in the season. I’m a Cats fan, not just a Nerlens Noel fan, and regardless of what happens in these last six games, I’ll be in Nashville to support the Cats in hopes that they make a miracle run. I hope the rest of BBN is ready to do the same.