The regular season is officially over, which means that the SEC Tournament is here!
Kentucky finished the year with a record of 26-5 and was 15-3 in conference play. This was enough to give the Cats the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament, behind only LSU who finished conference play with a record of 16-2.
There is still no solid word on whether or not Reid Travis is going to play in the SEC Tournament. His play drastically changes things for this team, and it’d be great to get him back on the court before the NCAA Tournament started.
Kentucky is in a very solid position to grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, despite being without Reid for nearly a month, but the Cats need a strong showing in the SEC Tournament in order to secure it.
Our writers here at A Sea of Blue have given their predictions as to how they feel about Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, what improvement the Cats must make this week to do well in the NCAA Tournament, and their overall thoughts of how the SEC Tournament will play out.
How confident do you feel about Kentucky entering the SEC Tournament?
Tj Barnett - This one is tough because I have very high expectations for a Kentucky team that is with Reid Travis. For one that is without him, I don’t feel so well. These guys have had an amazing season to this point as they have proven every doubter wrong. They were counted out after being dismantled by Duke, and now at the end of the season, people are predicting the Cats to be a 1 seed and the Blue Devils to be a 2 seed.
With that being said, this team’s tournament success is strictly dependent on the health of Reid Travis, so I’d say my confidence level is at a medium until we know more about Reid’s health.
Adam Haste - I am very confident about the Cats as they now enter March. They have had a few bumps in the road, but I like the way they are playing. The way this team can defend is a huge advantage in this time of year because of how much the game slows down, and winning in March starts with defense.
Sam Gillenwater - I feel very confident about the Wildcats in the SEC Tournament. Without Reid Travis, Kentucky has stayed afloat better than expected. With Travis, Kentucky can compete with anyone in the country. Kentucky adjusted well without Travis by getting strong minutes from EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards and with a few huge performances by Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro. Kentucky still has some question marks without Travis, but they still have more enough to be competitive with anyone in the tournament.
Nick Wheatley - I feel really good about where UK is at heading into the SEC Tournament. They have a multitude of weapons on the offensive end and they’re elite defensively. Kentucky also has a solid mix of veteran leadership and young talent. This team reminds me a lot of the De’Aaron Fox/Malik Monk squad in terms of how good they are. I’m very confident in what they’re able to do. That year, I thought Kentucky was a legitimate top-three team in the country, they just happened to run into the best in the Elite Eight. That’s how I feel this year, too. There isn’t a single team in the country that scares me.
Aaron Gershon - It’s hard not to like the Wildcats chances to win their fifth straight SEC Tournament. With the LSU drama and Tennessee’s late-season woes, Kentucky may be the most stable team in the conference entering the tournament. The Cats will need Reid Travis healthy, which seems like it will be the case.
Jamie Boggs - I love the chances of a full-strength Kentucky Wildcats team. However, I have a feeling that we will not see that in Nashville. John Calipari has said that Reid Travis will come off the bench and see limited minutes, and Coach Cal has never been one to sandbag. If Travis is ready to play his normal role by Saturday, give me the Cats. If not, I think they may be two and done this week.
What is the biggest improvement UK needs to make in the SEC Tourney?
Tj Barnett - It has to be the play of Ashton Hagans. His last game against Florida was a great sign as he notched 14 points and was aggressive the entire game by shooting 9 free throws. However, the 5 games previous to the Florida game have been subpar at best. He’s looked lost on the offensive end by turning the ball over multiple times, and on the defensive end it wasn’t much better. He’d let guards run right by him and it just hasn’t seemed like his confidence has been there. If Kentucky wants to make it far in this tournament, they’ll need their PG sharp and focused.
Adam Haste - For me, this team needs to get the Ashton Hagans back that we saw for a big stretch starting with the win over UNC. In the last game against Florida, Hagans played very well offensively and started to look like his old self on defense. He needs to build on that and keep playing at a high level for this team to make it to Sunday.
Sam Gillenwater - The biggest improvement UK needs is for Nick Richards to play at the level we’ve seen flashes of. At one point in the season finale against Florida, John Calipari put Richards on the bench and asked him, “Why won’t you just play hard?”. I’m not sure if it’s a question of effort or confidence, but if Kentucky wants to improve their chances without Travis, they need one of Richards or Montgomery to step forward in a big way.
I believe it’s more likely from Richards since we’ve seen it before during the Bahamas trip and in flashes over his two seasons in Lexington. On top of that, John Calipari has made it a point of emphasis throughout the season to get him going and give him confidence. I believe Travis will make an appearance at some point in this tournament, but with the question of when it will be and how much of an impact he will make still looming, the Wildcats need one of their bigs beyond PJ Washington to be a consistent and legitimate threat. This is Nick’s moment and I’m not saying he’ll shock the world, but I don’t believe he’ll fall completely flat.
Nick Wheatley - Kentucky has to improve significantly in two areas. First, the Cats have got to get some consistency out of the Keldon Johnson/Tyler Herro duo. They can’t have any more games like the one in Knoxville. Second, turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. In my mind, point guard is the single most important position come March. Ashton Hagans is solid, but he turns the ball over way too much, as does the rest of the team. They’ve got to cut down on the turnovers. The game slows down this time of year and it’s important to make each possession count.
Aaron Gershon - Kentucky will need big-time play from Keldon Johnson. Johnson has been inconsistent, but when he’s on he is among the top ten players in the nation. If Johnson is rolling, there will be less pressure on PJ Washington and Tyler Herro, who have carried the load of late.
Jamie Boggs - This is really all about Ashton Hagans. If he is the guy that played against North Carolina in December, I like this team in tournament play. However, that guy has only made special appearances lately.
I would also like to see more consistent play from either EJ Montgomery or Nick Richards. If EJ can dominate the glass and Nick and block shots, without either of them being a huge liability elsewhere, that takes this team to another level.
How are you predicting the SEC tourney will go for UK?
Tj Barnett - As it stands, I believe Kentucky will win the SEC Tournament for the 5th year in a row, and the 7th time in the previous 10 seasons. The first game will likely be against Alabama as the Crimson Tide are fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, which I believe gives them the nod over Ole Miss. This gives UK an opportunity for redemption against Alabama, which they will get.
Then, they’ll play Tennessee in the semi-final in a game they’re extremely eager to play, and they will pick up the victory behind a strong comeback performance from P.J. Washington.
Finally, they’ll meet up with Auburn in the Championship game and beat the Tigers for the title. Yes, Auburn.
The Will Wade controversy is in full effect, and without their coach, it’s going to be tough to beat an Auburn team coming off a big victory against Tennessee. This time of year is when John Calipari has his team playing at their best, which is ultimately why I see the Cats taking home the SEC Title.
Adam Haste - I have 32 good reasons to believe the Cats will end up winning the tournament, but this one will be one of the toughest. I feel good about the first game regardless of the opponent. I would like to see Kentucky get revenge on Alabama, but I think Ole Miss is the better team.
If it is the Cats and Vols round three on Saturday, my confidence will rest on the health of Reid Travis. If Kentucky gets him back and ready to go, I like their chances with him slowing Grant Williams down and taking down the Vols.
As for the Championship game, it doesn’t matter who makes it from that side, Kentucky will win. In a perfect world, it would be LSU, and the Wildcats can get revenge for the blown call in Rupp.
I think the Cats will make it five in a row and head into the NCAA Tournament with a ton of momentum.
Sam Gillenwater - I think Kentucky’s tournament success rests solely on the status of Reid Travis. With Travis, I think Kentucky has enough to hoist their fifth straight SEC Tournament trophy. If that be the case, Kentucky could possibly avenge all three of their SEC losses by beating Alabama, Tennessee, and LSU.
Alabama would have to beat Ole Miss, but any route that results in an SEC title for the Cats would very likely lock up a #1 seed for them in this year’s NCAA Tournament. I’m under the assumption, though, that Kentucky will either be without Travis at full strength, or possibly at all. John Calipari may choose to play it extremely safe, and if so I see Kentucky losing to Tennessee in the semifinals.
If Kentucky were to beat the Volunteers, I think they could and would beat anyone on the opposite side of the bracket. The most likely opponent would be an LSU team that got a controversial win in Rupp Arena, but is now missing key rotation player Javonte Smart and head coach Will Wade.
With their experience and from what I saw in the game in Knoxville without Travis, though, it may very well just be Tennessee’s year. That’s not necessarily the worst thing, as Kentucky lost in the SEC Tournament in 2012 and 2014, but later found themselves playing in the national championship game.
Big Blue Nation will have to wait and see what unfolds with Travis’ injury to see what version of this team will be on the floor and if it’s prepared to take on the challenge. I’m confident in this program come March, but without the kind of experience, they need when they’ll need it most, the Wildcats may fall short in order to keep bigger aspirations, beyond just another conference championship, in mind.
Nick Wheatley - I’m not sure who I’d rather play between Alabama and Ole Miss, but I’m confident either way. Bama beat Kentucky and Ole Miss took the Cats down to the wire, but both games were on the road, one early and the other without Reid Travis. I think this time around, UK will beat either of them by double digits.
Assuming Tennessee makes it to the semis, which is a safe assumption, I think UK will win...that is if Reid Travis is back. All of these assumptions and predictions are predicated on Travis’ return. Hopefully, this isn’t a Jarred Vanderbilt situation, and I don’t think it is. As long as Travis is healthy and ready to go, I think UK wins.
As for the top bracket, I’m really not sure who makes it to Sunday. If LSU is at full strength with Naz Reid, Javonte Smart, and Will Wade back at the helm, I think they’re easily the favorite. But even then, there’s no guarantee.
The Tigers’ matchup Friday will be one of two teams who have both beat LSU once and lost the other in overtime. That’s not even considering the fact that a possible matchup with a savvy Auburn squad could be in the works Saturday. I would give a slight edge to LSU making it to Sunday, if everyone is available. I think the Cats will be able to pull out the win this time, but I’m not very confident in LSU even making it that far.
If they don’t, I’ll take Florida or Auburn to be there. And I won’t be the least bit concerned about that matchup for UK.
Aaron Gershon - With Kentucky’s path, I see them battling the ten seeded Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama steamrolled Ole Miss in the regular season, and I see them taking them down again to set up a rematch with Kentucky. Alabama, of course, defeated the Cats to open up SEC play, but with Kentucky’s improvements I see them winning this time around.
Next up the will be the Tennessee Volunteers, who I project to take down Mississippi State in their quarterfinals matchup. The epic trilogy of this matchup should finally be a close game, but I see Kentucky getting the win with a healthy Reid Travis and not having to play on Rocky Top.
This would set up a finals matchup with not LSU, but the South Carolina Gamecocks. Frank Martin led USC to an outstanding conference season after playing terribly in the non-conference. By beating LSU in the semifinals, the Gamecocks would likely clinch a spot in the NCAA tournament. However, I don’t see them defeating Kentucky as UK has too much for the Gamecocks to handle. Thus, I do see the Cats winning their 5th straight conference tournament.
Jamie Boggs - The Kentucky Wildcats will open their play on Friday against either Ole Miss or Alabama. I, personally, think Ole Miss is a very dangerous team. But Alabama slammed them in their first matchup, and with Alabama being desperate for a tournament bid I could see that happening again. I love Kentucky against Alabama on Friday, but I would take them over Ole Miss as well.
I am not convinced that Reid Travis is healthy. And if he can’t play against Tennessee, the Wildcats are simply not the better team. So here is the scenario that I see playing out:
Kentucky loses to Tennessee on Saturday, who goes on to win the SEC Tournament.
Tennessee gets bumped back up to a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and will get the top seed in Kansas City.
Duke gets Zion back and wins the ACC Tournament, reclaiming their 1 seed over UNC.
Duke is the 1 seed in Louisville, where Kentucky falls to a 2. The Cats have motivation, home-court advantage, and hopefully a healthy Reid Travis by then.
March is awesome.