After escaping Starkville with a 71-67 win over Mississippi State, the Kentucky Wildcats have extended their win streak to 10 games and continue to trend upward.
After leading by as many as 18, the Bulldogs cut the UK lead to one, and it felt as if the Cats had reached a point of vulnerability. However, the No. 5 ranked Cats made the plays down the stretch in high pressure moments, while fighting foul trouble, to sneak by with a win.
This next two-game stretch, however, may be the most important of UK’s season, as they play the No. 21 LSU Tigers and No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers. It’s a stretch John Calipari knows that is extremely important for his program.
“The next two, you have games that are Elite Eight games, Final Four games,” said Calipari. “That is where we are playing now. Let’s see where we are. The good news is, whether Tuesday or Saturday, there will be more games. You are not like, ‘Well, your season ended.’ This is us to learn. Are we where we all think we are? Let’s see because we have to play the game.”
The Vols sit atop of the SEC standings with an undefeated record in conference play, with Kentucky and LSU a game behind at 9-1 apiece. With a win over each, the Wildcats will take over the lead in the SEC and not only position themselves better in the SEC Tournament, but cement themselves further as a legitimate national title contender.
LSU was expected to be good with Tremont Waters coming back and the additions of Naz Reid, Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams. Since most experts came into this SEC season thinking it was a three team race between Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky, the Tigers should be extremely pleased sitting in a tie for second place in SEC play.
With the Tigers averaging 83.3 points, Kentucky’s defense will have to show up once again by keeping Waters (15.7 points and 6.1 assists) and Reid (13.9 points and 6.2 rebounds) as quiet as possible. If UK can hold the Tigers to as few explosive plays and runs as possible, the Cats should be sitting in a good spot to take hold of second place before their prime-time matchup against UT.
The two games against Tennessee should be the best two games in the SEC this season. If Kentucky were likely to only win one game head-to-head, their best opportunity would be this Saturday in Rupp Arena as they have lost in Knoxville each of the last three years.
The Tennessee program has only gotten better under coach Rick Barnes. With their six best players being juniors and seniors, the Vols experience has blown through their non-conference schedule and SEC competition to place them firmly as the No. 1 team in the country.
With UT averaging 85.4 points and 19.9 assists per game, Kentucky’s defense will once again have to make a statement. PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Nick Richards match up well in size and skill level with the Vols’ Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander.
The Cats chances will depend on the ability of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson to defend against the Vols’ Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden.
Calipari actually reflected on another challenging slate of games this season when Kentucky won at Auburn and then beat a top-10 Kansas team one week later. However, Calipari knows those games won’t be as difficult as the two-game stretch of LSU and Tennessee.
“It did (help us), but this is going to be a harder set of games,” said Calipari. It is starting with this team that comes in and everyone is looking by this game and talking about that next one. I am not. I haven’t looked at one tape of Tennessee. Not one. I haven’t thought about them. I don’t know what they run.
“Well, I do know because they have the same team so they are probably running the same stuff. But, I haven’t done anything. My focus is let’s see how we are playing against this type of team, this kind of length. Those two teams are different.”
Calipari also knows how different his team is playing compared to a month ago, when each of these games could have gotten ugly.
“If we had played these two teams a month ago, [pause] it probably would have been ugly. Now we’ve got a chance that we’re coming together ourselves.”
ESPN College GameDay is returning to Lexington for the second time in four weeks, marking only the second time they have stopped anywhere in a season twice. If both teams stay highly ranked and if the first game lives up to the hype, it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if ESPN went to Knoxville for the sequel as well. GameDay will be aired from Memorial Coliseum at 11 am with the doors opening at 9:30 am.
Even with games against Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Florida still on the schedule, this stretch will likely help to decide where Kentucky winds up in the SEC Tournament and in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a tight race at the top of the SEC, but Kentucky has a great opportunity over the next three weeks to earn the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament and a chance at a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday.