Sad state of SEC clouds Cats' picture

John Clay
John Clay

It's the same as being the world's tallest midget.

What good is it to be the big fish in a small, contaminated pond?

That's our Kentucky conundrum these days, what with the Cats being the last undefeated and demonstrably the best team in what is turning out to be a downright dreadful hoops year for the Southeastern Conference.

True, in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, Billy Gillispie's band of brothers fought through its usual habit of multiple turnovers, its bout of bad shooting, Patrick Patterson's foul trouble and the Ramon Harris fainting scare to beat Alabama 61-51 at Coleman Coliseum.

"I thought we were as tough as we could possibly be," beamed Gillispie.

But in other league locales, SEC munchkins were playing as soft as pillows.

In Baton Rouge, Trent Johnson's LSU Tigers were taking it on the chin from Xavier, losing 80-70 to the Musketeers. Down in Knoxville, Bruce Pearl's suspender-tugging histrionics couldn't keep Tennessee from falling to bitter rival Memphis 54-52 at Thompson-Boling.

We're not talking BCS battleships here. Xavier is the kingpin of the Atlantic 10, not a beast of the Big East. Defending national runner-up Memphis is the C-USA's lone national presence and came within a few missed free throws at crunch time from Derrick Rose and Co. carting off the NCAA trophy last March. But John Calipari's club is understandably down in talent from a year ago.

Thing is, Tennessee's stumble and LSU's bumble were the league's final two non-conference chances to combat the critics' contention that SEC hoops are hurting.

Dennis Felton is all but a dead man walking at winless Georgia. Mark Gottfried's seat is about to ignite at Alabama. If it weren't for bad luck, Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy might have no luck at all. And the momentum Arkansas earned with surprise wins over Oklahoma and Texas has been squandered by a Hog collapse in conference play.

All this muddies the waters when it comes to divining a clear picture of just how impressive Billy G.'s club has been in running its overall record to 16-4 and conference mark to a perfect 5-0.

When watching the Cats' turnover parade, as it got little offensively from anyone not named Jodie Meeks in the first half Saturday, there was a tendency to feel that a good team would be pounding Kentucky into the parquet.

But in the second half, despite the chaos and confusion created by Harris' fainting spell, and the handicap of having Patterson strapped to the pine with four fouls, the Cats exhibited an impressive grit and determination.

"We're taking after Coach," said forward Perry Stevenson.

See, the national spotlight is on the point machine that is Meeks. Big numbers get big headlines. But the real UK story has been the smaller numbers associated with great defense. Alabama shot just 29 percent Saturday, the fifth out of five conference opponents to shoot less than 40 percent from the floor against the Cats.

As is most coaches' wont, Gillispie likes to paint the picture that every conference opponent is a treacherous titan, a difficult matchup. It's a stretching exercise. But when the Kentucky coach said early in the season he believed this particular team owned the tools necessary to be a great defensive club, turns out he wasn't merely slinging spin.

Whether UK's defensive prowess is enough to push the Cats toward a significant post-season splash, we'll have to wait and see.

The way the SEC is going, we won't really know how good this Kentucky team is until March.