Can UK stay perfect in SEC?
January 19, 2010
By Lawrence Prezman
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The Kentucky Wildcats are not a perfect team, but after watching them handle Florida pretty decisively in Gainesville – which is the toughest place for an SEC opponent to play in other than Lexington – it seems there’s a decent shot that UK could enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten and with the No. 1 overall seed.
Now, the last thing coach John Calipari wants is his team to be staring at possible perfection entering the NCAA Tournament. Calipari was practically relieved when his 2007-08 Memphis team led by Derrick Rose was beaten by Tennessee in late February to end that team’s chase at an unbeaten record. In fact, that loss seemed to be the perfect thing for Memphis as it rolled to the national title game, where it should have beaten Kansas – although the title would have been vacated, as it turned out. By the way, the last two times a Calipari team went undefeated in nonconference play, it went to the Final Four.
On Tuesday night, the Wildcats showed something by letting Florida back in the game. UK led by 15 early but the Gators tied it at 72 before Kentucky pulled away again, seemingly able to turn it up a notch when necessary. And maybe Florida isn’t ranked, but that snapped a five-game Kentucky losing streak in Gainesville.
Calipari told reporters his team learned a valuable lesson.
"I'm not afraid to lose a game," Calipari said. "I don't want to lose any. I want to win them all, but it's not life or death. So I said, 'Let's see who we are.' We have the will to win. The biggest thing that we have to learn is when we get someone down 12, 13, we've got to get it to 18, 20, 22 points. You must. We don't."
The scary part of Tuesday was that the best guard on the court wasn’t likely national player of the year John Wall but fellow UK freshman Eric Bledsoe, who finished with a career-high 25 point on 10-of-13 shooting. And another freshman, Daniel Orton, also had a big game. Those two aren’t even part of UK’s “Big 3” of Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.
While the SEC is certainly better than last year, it’s still not on par with the ACC, Big East, Big 12 or maybe even Big Ten. Looking at the remaining schedule, Kentucky should be favored in all of them. It still faces two games with Tennessee, which upset then-No. 1 Kansas last weekend. But the Vols also kicked their best all-around player, Tyler Smith, off the team. Tennessee and Ole Miss are the only currently ranked teams left on Kentucky’s schedule, and the Rebels have to come to Lexington. The other big challenge will be at Mississippi State on Feb. 16 in the only matchup with the athletic Bulldogs in the regular season.
So while Kentucky still isn’t a great ATS team (8-7 overall, just 4-6 at home), if you can find a decent long-shot bet on the Cats finishing the season unbeaten -- if they make it through the grind of the season, then running the table in the SEC and NCAA Tournament is very possible -- it might be worth it.