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‘Rising tide’ of SEC basketball has helped Kentucky

P.J. Washington (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

In 1963 Former US President John F Kennedy – while giving a speech defending his economic policies – said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  President Kennedy’s  point was that as overall conditions improve they tend to help everyone involved.

The same seems to have been proven true in SEC Basketball. Each year over the past three seasons the competitive level of SEC Basketball has improved. The quality of play has improved. The coaching ability has improved across the board. The continued improvement in coaching has also attracted a greater number of talented players at each member school. No longer is the SEC a two or three team league that it was over the past decade.

With all the influx of coaching and player talent the “tide” has been rising. And one of the major beneficiaries of this “rising tide” is the University of Kentucky.  At first glance it may not seem beneficial to have more teams in the SEC that can beat UK on any given night – home or away – but it has actually been a big benefit. Here’s why.

In 2016 the SEC only had three teams make the NCAA Tournament field. In 2017 the SEC presence in the tournament was expanded to five teams. For the current tournament the SEC had eight teams in the field of 68. Big improvements each year. Why is that important for UK?

In the 2017-2018 season UK played 34 games prior to reaching the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed. Their record was 24-10. Not a bad record but not outstanding either. Their SEC regular season record was 10-8 with a fourth place finish. Not what most fans would have hoped for or expected with the No. 2 recruiting class coming into the season.
In fact, it was the worst SEC record during the John Calipari era. But how does it look from a historical perspective. It is similar to previous seasons under Tubby Smith in 2006 and 2007 and Billy Gillespie’s 2009 team. Over the last thirteen years the three times UK has had a worse winning percentage than the 2018 team in the SEC they went on to perform somewhat poorly in post-season tournaments.

Under Tubby Smith in 2006 Kentucky finished sixth with a 9-7 SEC record and received an 8-seed. They lost in the Round of 32 to Connecticut. In 2007 under Tubby Smith UK once again finished with a 9-7 SEC record in fourth place, received an 8-seed and lost in the Round of 32 to Kansas. In 2009 UK – under Coach Billy Gillespie – finished 8-8 for seventh place in the SEC. They went on to lose in the quarterfinals of the NIT.

So why dredge up UK Basketball ancient history? Especially bad history. Because this year’s team also had a suspect record in the SEC – 10-8. This year’s team also finished fourth in the SEC. But this year’s team received a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Why?  Because of the big difference between the quality of this team and those three other teams of the past. Better talent was developed by coaching and competition. The “rising tide.”

Generally during those seasons in 2006, 2007 and 2009 Kentucky played four to five games against NCAA-caliber teams during their out-of-conference schedule and then four to six games against SEC teams that ended up in the NCAA Tournament. That was  a total of eight to ten games against NCAA-level completion. This year, as in past years, UK played four teams out-of-conference that made the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament.
The big difference this year again was the “rising tide.”  They played 13 games against NCAA-bound teams from the SEC. That means half the games they played this year prior to the NCAA Tournament were against NCAA-caliber teams. Half their games. That creates a lot of opportunities to build your resume, test the development of players and create the toughness that is needed to compete in an NCAA-atmosphere type game.
Fortunately that toughness and development is paying dividends at just the right time. In March. When each game is a “win or go home” proposition it certainly has helped to have played tough road games in places like College Station, Knoxville, Gainesville, Tuscaloosa and Columbia, Missouri. 
So far this Kentucky team has used the tougher skin it developed throughout the season to win some NCAA Tournament “pressure cooker” games against teams that had momentum and the Cinderella support of the local fans and media. Competition in tough situations – along with coaching for individual improvement – has made this team look much more like a champion than those other UK teams that finished in the middle of the SEC pack back in 2006, 2007 and 2009. 
In the end that “rising tide” in the SEC should continue to pay dividends to UK as the coaching talent improves which in turn improves the player performances in the SEC. And as that continues to occur in future years that “rising tide” will benefit everyone – including the University of Kentucky Wildcats. 


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  1. Eight SEC teams in the Dance and only KY and Texas A&M are still dancing after the first week. Both look Final 4 bound…what happened to the rest???

  2. The difference between those poor SEC records when the SEC was weak and the early NCAA flame outs in those years and now is the difference in coaches, Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie instead of John Calipari.

    That is it in a nutshell.

    It has very little if anything to do with the “strength” of the SEC top to bottom, which admittedly is stronger now than in those years.

  3. Basketball in the SEC has been trashed far a longtime by many so called experts. Today this league is stronger than ever with premier players at all programs, and excellent coaches top to bottom. As for moving forward in this years NCAA Tournament, I hope UK does not take Kansas State lightly. UK must play with an attitude and a desire to win or Kansas State is capable of beating them. GO Cats!!!

  4. Larry Pup, I watch Kansa st game it was sloppy wasn’t impressed at all what they show!!!

    1. I watched their game too Cats, it was sloppy. But it’s the way UM-BC plays defense that caused that. UM-BC is a spunky team that was good enough to beat the top team in the tournament. My only point is, don’t take any team lightly. Look where UVA is right now, the No. 1 overall seed.. This is a young UK team. Just keep the pedal to the medal boys. Just about the time we think, or this UK team thinks, they are a “shoe in” is when they will get beat. This team is where they are right now because they were under a lot of fire from BBN for poor play and decided to buy in. They are getting lots of praise now and national attention. I hope they don’t let it go to their heads is what I’m saying. Stay humble and hungry.

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