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Updated SEC standings & odds after Kentucky survives Arkansas

Kentucky avoids what would have been a very costly loss against Arkansas.

Jamie Boggs - Sea of Blue

With the Kentucky Wildcats tied for the SEC lead with a game in Knoxville looming, it was easy to overlook a late night home game against a 14-13 Arkansas team.

However, the Razorbacks came into Rupp and gave the Wildcats everything they had in the first half. With a heightened sense of urgency and some timely plays in the second half, Kentucky was able to storm back to win 70-66.

Even with Daniel Gafford picking up two quick fouls, Kentucky’s sloppy play allowed the Razorbacks to take a 20-12 lead early on. John Calipari was visibly frustrated with his group as they committed 12 turnovers in the first half.

You would normally want your team to make the extra pass, but they just had too many extra passes that led to live ball turnovers, and they were just blatantly careless with the basketball to start.

Isaiah Joe, who had 93 threes coming into the game, was the story for Arkansas on the offensive end. He scored 16 points by shooting 4-5 from three as he continuously found ways to get open.

Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro have grown defensively as the season has gone on, but Joe had them overplaying him over and over and was hitting shots all over the floor. What could go wrong did go wrong for the Wildcats in the first half, which is ultimately what led them to be down 39-28 going into halftime.

After starting slow again in the opening minute or so, Kentucky finally got some momentum and tied it at 51 after going on a 21-6 run. The Wildcats not only slowed down on offense by taking better shots and taking better care of the ball, but they hit a point where they drew a line in the sand defensively.

After Kentucky took the lead on another Herro three ball, the Wildcats and Razorbacks went back and forth down the stretch. Following some long reviews that went in the Wildcats favor, Immanuel Quickley iced it at the free throw line for the Kentucky to steal away a 4-point win.

Herro played the second half on a bad ankle, but he seemed perfectly fine as he slammed home a breakaway dunk, hit some huge three-pointers and locked in defensively to finish with a career-high 29 points on 9-10 shooting from the field and 4-5 shooting from behind the arc.

“Boy Wonder” had all the swagger in the world as during one trip to the free-throw line, he told one of the Arkansas players, “I’m a bucket.” The Tyler Herro on the road finally appeared at home, and it’s exactly what Kentucky needed and needs going forward.

PJ Washington had a quieter night with just 9 points and 6 rebounds, but Nick Richards was a huge performer off the bench. Richards grabbed 15 rebounds, scored 7 points and blocked 3 shots while playing great defense on Gafford.

Washington, Keldon Johnson (who had 13 points and 6 rebounds) and Reid Travis (when healthy) are big pieces to this team, but the X-Factor combination of Herro and Richards made the difference for Kentucky and will make the difference for the Wildcats in March.

Now, Kentucky enters the final three-game stretch of the regular season still very much alive in the race or the SEC. But with challenging road games at Ole Miss and Tennessee, the Wildcats have to play significantly better in those venues than we saw in Rupp. Or else, they could get ugly in a hurry.

SEC standings as of Wednesday morning.

At 13-2 in league play, Kentucky is briefly in a two-way tie with the LSU Tigers for first place in the SEC standings. However, that’s before the Tennessee Volunteers hit the road to face the Ole Miss Rebels tonight in Oxford. If Tennessee wins, they go back into a three-way tie with the Cats and Vols.

But if Tennessee loses, that would be their third loss in four games and drop them into third place. They would, however, get a chance to get back into a tie for second place if they beat the visiting Wildcats this Saturday in Knoxville. Regardless of what happens tonight, Round 2 of Kentucky vs. Tennessee will prove to be one of the biggest games of the 2019 SEC season.

The Vols then finish the regular season by hosting Mississippi State, then hit the road to play at Auburn. There’s a real chance Tennessee loses two more games before the regular season ends, so we’re going to see what the Vols are really made of.

LSU, on the other hand, managed to outlast Texas A&M on Tuesday without the services of Tremont Waters, who missed his second straight game due to illness.

Now, the real challenge for the Tigers begin with two straight road games at Alabama and Florida, two teams in desperate need of wins to secure their spots in the NCAA Tournament. That same Florida team comes to Rupp to cap off the regular season. After seeing how poorly Kentucky played against the Hogs, the Gators can no longer be slept on for Senior Day.

LSU concludes the regular season by hosting Vanderbilt, the easier possible matchup one can have in the SEC. There’s no doubt the Tigers have the easiest three-game slate left of the top three contenders, which is why they’re favored to be the 1 seed in the SEC Tournament since they hold tiebreakers over LSU and Kentucky.

For what it’s worth, here’s a look at how TeamRankings sees the SEC race and conference tournament:

Essentially, they think Kentucky and LSU both lose one more game and finish 15-3 in league play. They’re not quite as optimistic on Tennessee, who is more likely to lose two more games of the top three teams. And as long as LSU doesn’t lose one more game than Kentucky and Tennessee down the stretch, the Tigers will be the 2019 SEC regular-season champs.

But regardless of how the final three games play out, Kentucky should be the favorite to win the SEC Tournament so long as Reid Travis is back. The senior forward is still out with a knee injury, though he could return in time for Senior Day against Florida. With him in the lineup, Kentucky has more firepower than anyone in the league.