Many of Kentucky’s youngest players weren’t even in kindergarten the last time UK entered a Southeastern Conference Tournament with a losing record and minimal postseason options.
The last time that happened was in 2004 when then first-year coach Mickie DeMoss had just taken over the Kentucky program and was starting a rebuild.
Since then a combination of DeMoss and then Matthew Mitchell, has led the Cats to various postseason destinations, including eight straight NCAA Tournaments.
Barring a miracle that would include knocking off multiple ranked teams this week in Nashville and winning the SEC Tournament outright, UK will not be one of the 64 tournament teams for the first time since 2009.
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For now, Kentucky (14-16, 6-10 SEC) is aiming for the miracle.
“It’s not a secret in this day and age where we stand and what needs to happen,” Mitchell said. “I know the team wants to make a run here at the SEC Tournament and it’s really something that we’ve come close to a bunch of times at Kentucky. …
“Everybody understands what needs to happen and you have no shot at it unless you beat Alabama on Thursday.”
The ninth-seeded Cats will take on the Crimson Tide (17-12, 7-9), a team UK beat 79-54 on Jan. 25, in the second round on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
The winner of that game will meet unbeaten Mississippi State, who has beaten Kentucky twice in as many weeks.
It’s a big mountain to climb just to get into the conference tournament semifinals.
If the Cats don’t get their succession of miracles, will this season simply end with a loss in Nashville?
Kentucky’s options are limited. With a losing regular-season record, the Cats’ only chance at getting into the Women’s National Invitational Tournament would be through the automatic qualifier. That bid goes to the team with the best conference record that didn’t get an NCAA Tournament invitation.
Right now, that team appears to be Alabama. ESPN’s bracketology guru Charlie Creme has the SEC putting seven teams comfortably into the NCAA Tournament with the Tide among those on the outside, followed by UK.
That would mean the WNIT automatic qualifier goes to Alabama, which finished the season a game ahead of UK in the league standings. The Cats’ record this season wasn’t helped much by one of the toughest conference schedules in his history as a coach, Mitchell said. The Cats’ strength of schedule is ranked No. 16 nationally.
Kentucky’s only other postseason option appears to be the Women’s Basketball Invitational, a 16-team single-elimination tournament played on campus sites that is announced on Selection Monday after the other brackets are unveiled.
Similar to the other postseason tournaments, teams are selected based on RPI, record, conference standing and performance down the stretch to compete in the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
It seems to be the most viable option for Kentucky, and Mitchell said he wants this young team to get as much experience playing together as it can.
UK loses only senior forward Alyssa Rice and little-used guard Jessica Hardin. Giving the Cats’ young players a chance to continue to develop is priority one for Mitchell.
“We will definitely look for opportunities to play,” Mitchell said when postseason possibilities were discussed Sunday.
He pointed to how many NCAA Tournament-bound teams Kentucky has played closely this year. He doesn’t see a team on its last legs, but one just starting to show what it can do.
“In my mind as long as the team keeps coming with great energy at practice, and working hard, I would love for them to have an opportunity to play,” he said.
“We’re in control of that right now as long as we have life in the SEC Tournament that’s what our focus will be on, just trying to play winning basketball. You know every year somebody does something special in the conference tournament and that’s what our mindsets got to be. We got to go in and try to get a victory on Thursday and then just survive and advance.”
Kentucky vs. Alabama
What: Southeastern Conference Tournament second round
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
When: 1 p.m. EST Thursday
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: No. 9 seed Kentucky 14-16; No. 8 seed Alabama 17-12
Series: Kentucky leads 29-17
Last meeting: Kentucky won 79-54 on Jan. 25, 2018, in Lexington.