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3 things the Cats need to win their fifth straight SEC Tournament title

John Calipari may loathe conference tournaments, but his program has certainly done an excellent job of winning them. Here’s three things that can help Kentucky capture their 32nd SEC Tournament title.

Florida v Kentucky
Keldon Johnson’s offense will be needed as Kentucky starts their postseason journey on Friday night in Nashville.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Ah, yes. It’s once again that time of the year where the Big Blue Nation takes over a city for their (usually) three-day stay at the SEC Tournament.

Kentucky rides into the tournament as the No. 2 seed and winners of six of their last seven games. Have those six wins brought some impressive performances? Not exactly.

Out of those six victories (Tennessee, at Missouri, Auburn, Arkansas, at Ole Miss and Florida), only the Tennessee and Auburn victories left much of the BBN with mostly all positive thoughts.

Sure, there’s a BIG asterisk over these last six games (ehh, let’s say five and some change instead), but the Cats have stayed right in the thick of the No. 1 seed discussions for the NCAA Tournament and still almost nabbed a share of the SEC regular season title.

With the SEC Tourney here, the Cats are going to most likely need two victories (at worst) to truly lock up a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. (That South Region with the second weekend being hosted in Louisville could be quite the perk for the Cats come Sunday when the bracket is official.)

John Calipari may not be a big fan of conference tournaments, but his Kentucky teams have won six of the nine tourneys (nice) they’ve participated in. They’re quite good at them.

Having said that, for the Cats to make it 7-for-10 this weekend, here’s three things that will be key for Kentucky in Nashville.

1. Let’s just get this one out of the way now: Reid Travis returning to the rotation

I bet you knew this one was coming, huh? You did. I figured you would.

OK, let’s preface that with this: Reid Travis isn’t going to play the same minutes he was playing before Kentucky’s national title hopes were almost derailed in that weird game against Missouri on Feb. 19 when Travis hurt his knee.

If, and yeah, it’s still an ‘if’ at this point, if Reid Travis returns on Friday night (or even later in the weekend), getting him going and shaking the rust off will be key not just for him, but for Kentucky moving into the rest of the postseason. Stranger things have happened (they have, the show’s great by the way), but Kentucky’s not winning a national title without Reid Travis being Reid “I’m freakin’ stronger than everyone in this building” Travis.

If Kentucky-Tennessee III happens on Saturday, the Cats will need Reid Travis just like they did in the first matchup. He makes such a difference on BOTH ends.

The Cats have missed him and it showed over the final five games of the season. (Especially in the Tennessee loss.)

As good as Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson were at times, PJ Washington found himself struggling a bit without his fellow bash brother on the floor. Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery did fine and contribute in their own ways, but Travis is just different. He’s experienced, seemingly always in the right place on the floor, strong as hell and a leader on this team. Having that voice back on the floor will be huge for the Cats.

Talk about a jolt in the arm or finding that last Infinity Gem for the gauntlet, right?

2. Ashton Hagans takes care of the basketball

Since the Tennessee blowout at home back on Feb. 16, take a guess as to how many turnovers Ashton Hagans has committed?

10? Higher.

12? Higher.

15? Even higher.

Hagans has averaged three turnovers a game since that win, which brings his total to 18 over the last six games. He struggled against a focused Jordan Bone in the second Tennessee game defensively, but he’s the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC. You know what you’re going to get there most of the time. He’s still the quarterback and the guy that basically turned the season around in Chicago in the North Carolina win.

(Side note: Remember how good Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was leading Kentucky to the tournament title last year? In those three tournament games, he committed five turnovers, three came in the win over Tennessee where he led everybody with 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting. That came after an eight-game stretch where he committed 23 turnovers and the Cats lost four of those eight games.)

But, can Hagans be an offensive contributor like his ‘hey, that was actually a pretty needed’ 14-point performance to help the Cats dispatch Florida in the regular season finale? If the Cats are going to beat the Ole Miss-Alabama winner, (more than likely) Tennessee and (probably) LSU or Auburn, Hagans has to take care of the basketball.

This is the Ashton Hagans that Kentucky needs this weekend (and beyond for that matter):

Good find, Ashton.

... and not this Ashton Hagans:

Hagans wasn’t the only one to struggle in the second Tennessee encounter, but he has to take better care of the basketball for the Cats to have postseason success.

3. Keep doing you, Tyler Herro

PJ Washington probably should’ve been named the SEC Player of the Year. Or at least that’s what many Kentucky fans will tell you. (Personally, I would agree with them.)

You know Washington will be ready despite his recent struggles at times, but even with Travis potentially returning to the frontcourt, the Cats have to find other ways to score. Thankfully for them, they have themselves a bucket.

If Tyler Herro stays hot, Kentucky’s going to be in good shape.

Keldon Johnson was fantastic in the wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss, but Tyler Herro has been sensational on both ends of the floor after getting chewed out in the second Tennessee game by Calipari. (They get blown out by Arkansas at home without Herro’s heroics.)

Tyler Herro the shooter? Good. Tyler Herro the defender? Pretty good, too.

Johnson’s scoring will be needed in Nashville, but Herro’s consistency offensive and defensively lifts this team’s ceiling to a point not many other programs in the country can reach. He’s averaged 17.3 points per game in the last seven games, along with 6.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals while shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range. The last time the guy missed a free throw, Brandon Knight was hitting game-winners over Aaron Craft.

This team needs Travis to win the title in April, but Herro can be that hero a team could need to get them to that top line on Selection Sunday. He’s a big-play maker and doesn’t fear the big moments. With some potentially tight contests coming against the better SEC sides and Travis still finding his way back, teams will again key on Washington. Herro’s going to have a chance or two to be the bucket he claims to be.

There’s plenty that you can discuss before the ball’s tipped off on Friday night.

Will Travis actually play? How much will Richards and Montgomery contribute if they have to continue to play heavier minutes? Can the Cats get a break with LSU or Tennessee losing in the quarterfinals? Will they even survive their own tricky matchup against Ole Miss or Alabama (the only non-top 3 in the SEC team to beat Kentucky this season)?

It’s not the end of the world if Kentucky doesn’t win the tournament again this season, but for their sake moving into the tournament that really matters, the Cats will be in great shape if these three things can come to fruition, plus an added bonus or two. (Unfortunately for the BBN, it won’t come from Wenyen Gabriel out of nowhere again.)