By LARRY VAUGHT
After winning 13 straight Southeastern Conference Tournament games, Kentucky finally lost one Saturday to Tennessee and won’t have a chance to win a fifth straight SEC tourney title today.
But could that be a good thing for Kentucky?
Actually, it could be. Here’s why:
— The Cats will now have an extra day of rest going into the NCAA Tournament. Winning the SEC Tournament on a Sunday — why the SEC keeps doing that for the sake of a few TV dollars continues to befuddle me — means that Kentucky has had to turn around and sometimes start NCAA play on Thursday. Sure, UK travels first class and can get to and from sites easily, but it is still a grind and now UK has an extra day off.
— Reid Travis won’t have to play three straight days after coming back from a sprained right knee that sidelined him for over three weeks and five games. Travis was playing with no fear or hesitation in the two SEC tourney games but now he can regroup and hopefully be even fresher and bouncier for NCAA play.
— Kentucky can enter NCAA play with a chip on its shoulder. The Cats may not have got a No. 1 seed if they had beat the Vols but they certainly won’t now. Calipari can now rally the troops with his “us against the world” and use whatever the seeding turns out to be to motivate his team.
“The hard thing about this tournament, if we had won the game, my comment to my team now is, If you’re going to make me coach, you’re going to play in this finals, we’re winning it. We’re not going to lose and have to play, then have to play Thursday (in the NCAA),” Calipari said after Saturday’s loss. Now we’re done. We’ll drive home and get ready for the tournament. I believe we’ll be in, do you think so?”
Of course a top 10 team with 27 wins including one over possible No. 1 seed North Carolina along with one win over the Vols, a top 10 team, is going to be in the NCAA field. Who knows? Maybe UK will be the No. 2 seed in the West Region that traditionally is not as loaded with powerhouse teams as other regions. Maybe UK will get to be the No. 2 seed in Louisville and go against Virginia — I am conceding that Duke will be the No. 1 overall seed and play in the East Region.
“I think we’ll be in. I don’t even want to say anything. I could tell you what our bracket will look like if you’d like to know. I’m just kidding,” Calipari said.
No he wasn’t. He believes almost every year UK gets one of the toughest NCAA Tournament draws regardless of how the Cats are seeded.
Kentucky did a lot of good things against Tennessee. It dominated the paint. It had five players in double figures. EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley all contributed off the bench. Kentucky just didn’t seal the deal the final three minutes.
But the Cats get a do-over for NCAA play and winning a conference regular-season championship or conference tourney championship is not a requirement to win a national title. So while the SEC tourney semifinal loss hurt, maybe in the long run it will help.