Billy Gilliespie said in the postgame today that he “cant remember a team ever being more courageous” than the Kentucky team that took the floor today. You can make a case that three of Kentucky’s players had a career day in a losing effort, which says a lot about this team’s performance against the #1 team in the land, on the road. Whether it was Ramon Harris showing offensive aggression, Perry Stevenson becoming a force down low, Derrick Jasper making the correct pass at the correct moment, Joe Crawford fighting on defense or Ramel Bradley just being Ramel Bradley and making big plays, you couldnt help but be proud of the guys in Blue on Sunday. Billy Gillispie executed a TREMENDOUS gameplan that saw the Cats control tempo, never get rattled even after an early Tennessee run and basically render the UT crowd ineffective. Ramel, Ramon and Derrick played 40 minutes and all gave it everything they had. I have seen a lot of great UK performances, but none that made me more proud as a fan.
But as good as that performance was, it was still a loss and it sets up a concrete scenario for Kentucky. By playing Tennessee well, the doubts the committee may have had about UK without Patterson should be erased. Thus if Kentucky can win their last two games, they are dancing in the NCAA Tournament. It is debateable whether one win and one loss, plus a run in the SEC Tournament could do it, but for our purposes we dont wanna go there. For now, two wins and you go dancing….period. Kentucky plays at South Carolina and at home to Florida, both games they can win and both games that will define UK’s ultimate fate this season.
First the Cats head to Columbia for Dave Odom’s last night at home as coach of South Carolina. The Gamecocks are capable of beating anyone but are actually a good matchup for the Cats. They dont get it done with big guys and are a perimeter based team. When they get hot with the three pointer (as in Lexington), they can scare any team in the country…..but if they are cold, or even just lukewarm, they have a hard time winning games. Kentucky can play the lineup it prefers (Crawford, Bradley, Jasper, Harris and Stevenson) and not be outmanned or outsized. That means it will be a battle of wills and one that must take place on the road. Since Kentucky beat Tennessee in Rupp Arena and made clear they could make the NCAA Tournament, this has been the game I was most concerned about. South Carolina has some experience, they shoot the ball well and there will be a lot of emotion from the players in Columbia that night. Patterson’s loss isnt the biggest problem this game….just executing and winning on the road will be. It will be a BATTLE in my view, but one the Cats can conquer.
Then comes the Gators at home. With the way the two teams have finished the season, this game in Rupp could be a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. The Gators have struggled mightily on the road this year and have at times looked absolutely awful away from Gainesville (see the Arkansas game). From a matchup standpoint, they dont kill Kentucky because while they have one solid big guy in Speights, the other (flip-flop wearing Dan Werner) spends his life on the perimeter. They also come to Rupp on Senior Day, one that will most certainly be emotional for Ramel, Joe and the UK team. These guys have given a lot to the program and I expect a lot of energy from the guys dedicated to these leaders. Add to it the fact that Kentucky hasnt beaten Florida in what seems like a lifetime, and this national television game on CBS simply couldnt be bigger. On the court, this game is a tossup without Patterson, but just as Florida pulled it out in Gainesville, UK can pull it out using the crowd in Lexington. If there was EVER a game for the blue hairs to get loud, this one will be it.
The next week then represents a difficult, but by no means a daunting, task. The Cats are two winnable games away from dancing. If I told you that would be the case after the San Diego loss, you would have said I was crazy. Now it is here. Win them both and UK gets a bye in the SEC Tournament and is placed on the side of the bracket where a finals run is possible. Lose one of them and then you have to make a run in the tournament, all of a sudden with a much more difficult schedule and you leave your fate in old white guys in a hotel in downtown Indianapolis’ hands. No reason to get to that point. Win these two and the Cats are dancing and all else doesnt matter. In a confusing and emotional season that has left us both exhilirated and baffled, it now all of a sudden becomes much clearer: Win Two and We Dance