UK must make other teams fear Rupp Arena. - Andy Lyons
Almost everybody has remarked that the SEC schedule will be very soft this season, and offer few opportunities for improvement. So how does Kentucky succeed?
We have seen some concern, even hand-wringing among some of the Big Blue commentariat about the softness of the SEC schedule, and how few opportunities there are in that schedule for Kentucky to improve its standing and receive a high seed to the NCAA Tournament.
At this moment, the SEC is probably he weakest it has been in over a decade. Ken Pomeroy's rankings of conferences currently show the SEC ranked 7th, and since 2003 when Pomeroy first started his statistics project, the SEC has never been ranked that low. It may yet wind up higher, but for right now, it is at a significant nadir.
So what does Kentucky need to do to gain the favor of the NCAA selection committee? Well, first of all, let me say that a #1 seed, while not impossible, is somewhat unlikely. Even if the Wildcats run the table and win the SEC tournament, they are going to need help from other top teams to move up the polls, and many of the current crop of top teams can withstand an occasional loss due to the fact that their competition is tougher, and they succeeded better against non-conference foes.
Kentucky's best shot, at this point, is to aim for a 2 or 3 seed. To get that done, the following things need to happen:
- Win almost every game in the SEC regular season. They may be able to weather a loss at Florida, but other than that, Kentucky needs to run the table, because there are no good losses available to them in conference except perhaps at Florida, and even that that is not a sure thing -- Florida has been a bit up and down.
- Get to the SEC tournament final. The last game that the NCAA selection committee takes note of is the semifinal, because the SEC final is on Selection Sunday. Winning the SEC tournament final is desirable, but probably won't have any effect on the seed.
- Win huge. That's where UK's thin bench can be an advantage. You may think that a 25 point victory is just as good as a 35 point bulge, but because of the slim margin for error UK has, a blowout, particularly on the road, helps more than you think, especially if the team Kentucky beats goes on to improve. Conference foes will have to forgive us if we run up the score a little, assuming we can get in that position.
- See some improvement in opponents. A few long winning streaks that don't include UK in them by conference foes will help.
- Win every home game in a lopsided fashion. Kentucky cannot afford to drop a single home game if they want a high seed, and close home games spell trouble.
- Stay healthy. Nothing disrupts team chemistry like an injury, particularly among a young group like this.
- Stay hungry. John Calipari has been working hard to get this team to talk to each other, to play at a consistently high level of effort, and to form a collective bond that will make them dangerous. He must also help them learn how to be hungry for victory, every game.
Right now, Kentucky is only partially in control of its destiny. A perfect or 1-loss conference record and an SEC tournament title should get them in position for at least a 4 seed, and possibly much better if they get some help from the national cream of the crop. Obviously, the most important thing for UK is that they are playing their best basketball at season's end, no matter what seed line they wind up on.
A good seed is important if you want to win the NCAA Tournament, but not drop-dead critical. At the end of the year, if this UK team can begin to approach its ceiling, it will be good enough to beat anyone. Kentucky can only control what is in front of them, though, which is to say, the next opponent. That happens to be Vanderbilt tonight.
Versus a young and down Vanderbilt team on the road, Kentucky needs to crush the Commodores like they insulted their collective mamas. Commodore fans may be unhappy with this no-holds-barred approach, but they know this is a rebuilding year. Come out fast, put your foot on the neck of the foe, and end it quickly and by an ugly score. This game will set the tone for the rest of the SEC season.
The only game that matters now is the game right in front of you, and every one of them is critical from this point on. A sub-par non-conference opponent has left Kentucky with no opportunities to take their foot off the gas.