JOE COX: Nashville Ready for Kentucky but is Kentucky Ready for Nashville?
NASHVILLE -- Every SEC Tournament seems to bring a little more clarity to the conclusion that the days of the SEC being Kentucky and the Seven (Eleven? Thirteen?) Dwarves are long, long gone.
Not just for the No. 3 seed that the Wildcats earned, but for the significantly more evenly divided crowds that assemble in Bridgestone Arena for the Tournament. Patches of Alabama red, Tennessee orange, and even Auburn blue and orange more or less evenly match the clumps of Kentucky blue in the crowd. It may have taken time, but the SEC has risen to the sport’s calling. The eight SEC squads likely to receive NCAA Tournament bids certainly attest to the point.
Unlike some seasons past, the question this year is not whether Nashville is ready for Kentucky, but whether Kentucky is ready for Nashville. The Alabama Crimson Tide not only have a No. 1 seed all but wrapped up in the NCAA Tournament, but they blistered Kentucky in the schools’ regular season meeting. Texas A&M blew past the Wildcats in the SEC standings, and No. 4 seed Mizzou and No. 6 seed Vanderbilt have both bested the Wildcats this season.
That said, there is reason for optimism within Big Blue Nation. Antonio Reeves comes in hot off a career performance, and freshman star Cason Wallace is expected back to join him. Jacob Toppin has been significantly more consistent down the season’s stretch and UK’s improved play is almost certainly a byproduct of that development. Chris Livingston is still putting things together, but looks a little less like an unsure freshman every time out.
Kentucky doesn’t get a bad draw in Nashville, either. The Wildcats will face NCAA bubble team Vanderbilt to open, with a shot to avenge UK’s last regular-season loss. A victory would lead to a matchup with either No. 2 seed Texas A&M or talented but inconsistent Arkansas. And then, in the finals, UK could potentially see either a chance to avenge the ugly loss to Bama or a chance to best Tennessee for a third time this season.
The additional good news is that Kentucky’s timely improvement seems to be coinciding with a number of teams in the same general NCAA Tournament seed lines melting down. The Wildcats could well end up with a 5 seed with a solid performance in Nashville, and all things considered, a No. 4 seed could even break UK’s way with a tournament victory and a few power conference upsets.
Of course, opportunity has seemed to demarcate John Calipari’s best Kentucky teams from his worst. Since the 2015 season, Kentucky’s opportunities rarely have matched up with their results. On the other hand, another 2011- or 2014-type season could be brewing, with Kentucky’s best basketball still ahead of it. The next few days in Nashville should provide part of that answer. After all, Nashville is ready. Is Kentucky?
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written or co-written nine books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 and can be ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.