Normally, you wouldn't think a late-season tilt versus a Georgia Bulldogs team with a 5-9 SEC conference record would be that big a deal for the Kentucky Wildcats, who sport a 12-2 record. This year, though, you would be wrong.
This game is important for all kinds of reasons -- let me count the ways:
- The Vanderbilt Commodores are 12-3. A loss here and the Wildcats are in a tie for the SEC East and overall lead, and would have to hope for a Vandy loss to win the league outright.
- If Kentucky loses this game, their #1 tournament seed will no longer be assured, and in fact, they will most likely need help in the form of losses from other top tournament teams to have a chance to regain it.
- The Bulldogs have an RPI of only around #83. Beating Kentucky, even in their gym, would be considered a bad loss and hurt UK's seeding in the eyes of the Tournament Committee. In fact, the odds are fair that UK would not be able to recover enough to get a #1 seed.
- The Bulldogs are coming off a 2-point victory over the Florida Gators at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. In addition, the Bulldogs have been giving top teams fits at home, beating Tennessee, nearly beating Vandy last week, and beating the aforementioned Gators. The Dawgs may have struggled against the West, but they have been beating the top teams in the East with disturbing regularity.
- The Red Clay Hounds are undefeated in Athens against SEC East squads. Yes, I'm as surprised as you are, but it is the truth.
- Georgia has steadily risen in the RPI rankings until January, where they hit the top 100 and have stayed there. Their inconsistency has prevented them from rising further, but they are a talented ball club who has proven that they can handle anyone in the conference at home.
Even though the Bulldogs are not a threat to make the tournament this year, they can definitely spoil Kentucky's plans for the NCAA tournament and force a re-evaluation. No doubt that is exactly what is going to be on their minds tonight as the Wildcats travel to the wonderful college town of Athens, Georgia today.
But it won't be so wonderful for the Wildcats. As John Calipari has repeatedly said, Kentucky is going to be everybody's Super Bowl this year. Even in the basketball-challenged, football-mad Peach State, you can expect very few empty seats in Stegeman tonight, and the crowd will likely be as rowdy and loud as those at Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mississippi St. have been, if a little smaller overall (Stegeman Coliseum only seats 10,500 or so).
This is another one of those, "win this one, and you are guaranteed a share of the SEC regular-season championship" games, and hopefully, this will be the one the 'Cats actually win to claim that share. Another interesting fact is that Kentucky can no longer get to 30 wins in the regular season, but they can get to 29, which will still raise the regular season win record set a few games back. Like most UK fans, I sure would have liked a nice, round number, though.
Just to let you know how big this could be in terms of national title implications, #2 seeds have played for the national championship 15 times, and won 6 (Kentucky was one in 1998). #1 seeds have played in the national championship game 29 times, or almost twice as often, and won 17 times, more than twice as often. So if UK wants to historically double their odds of playing for the national title and more than double the odds of winning it if they do, this win is a critical part of that effort.
Calipari says that it's all about the NCAA tournament seeding now. If so, this game is a must-win for UK's best shot at a title run.