The question in the lede is not hard to answer. This game is huge. Stupendous. Titanic. Unquestionably, it is the single most important game of this season so far for the Kentucky Wildcats. The pressure, 100% of it, is on this young basketball team.
It needn't have been this way. Had the Wildcats not managed to drop three out of four road games in conference this year, this game would just be another big game between Kentucky and the Florida Gators, a series which has returned to form lately, with Kentucky winning four of the last five.
Kentucky's road woes this year have been well documented, but in the process of getting to this point, the Wildcats have dug themselves into a bit of a hole in the East and now must find ways to win games that many might have figured for a possible loss earlier in the season -- on the road at Florida, versus the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville and the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville. Right now, though, the only game that matters is the one right in front of them -- Florida in the O-Dome.
This Wildcat team has been faced with a very similar situation just a few games back at South Carolina. After having lost to the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens and the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, the Wildcats were limping into Columbia to face the South Carolina Gamecocks in a similarly must-win scenario on the road versus a team playing very good basketball in Columbia Life Arena. The Wildcats rose to that occasion with one of their best defensive performances of the year, held off a late charge by the Gamecocks, and won comfortably, 67-58. They must rise to the occasion again in Gainesville if they want to entertain hopes of a second strait SEC regular-season title.
More after the jump.This game presents a similar opportunity to excel, only with a more talented opponent and somewhat magnified pressure since the unfortunate narrow loss to the Mississippi Rebels in Oxford. A loss by Kentucky here places them at 4-4 in the SEC, firmly in the middle of the pack and two to three games behind the conference leaders, the Crimson Tide in the West and Florida (and possibly Tennessee) in the East.
It is not impossible to win the conference with four or five losses, but it looks rather unlikely at this point. Alabama has a tough two-game stretch, but then their schedule becomes very favorable. They may still drop a few games, but it's hard to see them winding up with more than five losses, and they own the tiebreaker versus Kentucky.
For the East Division teams, the road is far more challenging. It's easy to see Florida coming back toward the middle even if they win today, and Tennessee as well, because the better teams are concentrated in the East. However, Kentucky has to learn how to win SEC games consistently on the road, and yet another loss here will arguably force them to run the table to be right there at the end.
That's too much to ask right now, especially with road trips to Tennessee in Knoxville and the Vanderbilt in Nashville still coming up, not to mention a trip to always-tough Bud Walton Arena to face the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that is wildly inconsistent but very dangerous on a given night, particularly at home.
But mostly, this game is important to the confidence of this young team. What's the old saying, "Once is a fluke, twice is a trend, three times is a habit?" Right now, Kentucky is in the habit of losing road games. Worse, they are in the habit of losing close games. These habits need to change, but not necessarily both at once. Most have this figured to be another close game on the road for Kentucky, but any kind of victory here will do.
For Kentucky's post-season hopes, this is a big game but not as huge. It's an opportunity to remain undefeated against top-25 competition, and get another big win against a top opponent on the road. The upside to winning this game, in a tournament qualification sense, far outweighs the downside to losing. But UK really needs to begin playing well, and even though this game marks only the midpoint in the SEC season, it is roughly 66% of the overall season, and a team that starts limping around now will be noticed come NCAA tournament selection time. At some point in this campaign, Kentucky needs to win some road games in order to impress the committee, and almost all the easier ones are in the rear-view mirror.
Make no mistake -- this game is as big as they get mid-season for the Kentucky Wildcats. There ought to be no question as to who needs this more, and who should be more motivated.