Can Kentucky win the Southeastern Conference? Can the Wildcats earn a high seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament?
Both scenarios remain in play following a dramatic 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt Tuesday night, Jan. 30. Considering the Commodores have the worst record in the Southeastern Conference and it took an extra five minutes for the Wildcats to avoid a lowly letdown, this Kentucky team has yet to prove it has turned the proverbial corner.
However, the signs have been there during the past two weeks. The Wildcats have won three straight, including a comeback win at West Virginia, following a loss to Florida at Rupp Arena, which ended the team’s 30-game home winning streak against conference foes.
In order to win the regular-season conference title, Kentucky needs to simply keep winning, while chasing a surprising Auburn team that reached the 20-win plateau earlier this week and own an 8-1 mark against league foes. The Tigers are two games ahead of Kentucky and Florida in the conference standings.
Although not impossible considering Auburn is walking in uncharted territory, Kentucky (17-5 overall) needs a dose of luck and maturity going into the final week of the regular season. Kevin Knox, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week, thinks the win over Vandy, coupled with the “Morgantown Miracle” provided the team with confidence and momentum.
“It (the win over Vandy) was a good one for us,” Knox said. “I mean, they caught our plays the whole game, but we fought and came back. Just like West Virginia, we were clamping, got some stops on defense, and executed on offense.”
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (pictured against Vanderbilt) admitted it was hard to move past West Virginia, but had a big role in helping the Wildcats defeat the Commodores by scoring a career-high 30 points, including two clutch free throws with two seconds remaining that sent the game into overtime.
“I wouldn’t say it was hard (to get over the exciting win over West Virginia),” he said. “I think it was just us being complacent, myself a little bit included as well. We have to stop doing that. We get a little bit too high after good wins and stuff like that and we have to stay level headed.”
In moving forward, UK associate head coach Kenny Payne said the top priority remains teaching the team to become mentally tough.
“We're trying to teach young kids toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness, toughness through adversity, to play the game with a fire, with a desire that and a will to win, a will to dominate your position, a will to play together and no matter what the other team does, no matter what calls go against you, you fight to get that win,” he said. “That's what we're teaching. At times it's hard because you're dealing with young kids' emotions. … It's hard, it's really, really hard doing what we do, but on the flip side, who would want to be anywhere else other than this doing this?”
However, as Payne knows the coaching doesn’t stop until the season comes to a close and complacency isn’t an option.
“I’m not happy at all,” Payne said. “I’m sure Coach Calipari is not happy at all. We are thankful we won the game, but the coaching staff's not happy because we're trying to trend in a direction. We're trying to build this team up to play a certain way to be ready for SEC Tournament play, to be ready for an NCAA run.”
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.
Gilgeous-Alexander photo by Wayne Mason