UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: For UK and its fans, SEC basketball gets interesting

South Carolina has won the Southeastern Conference championship only once. A title is within reach for Coach Frank Martin, particularly if the Gamecocks can turn back Kentucky on Saturday in Columbia, S.C.
South Carolina has won the Southeastern Conference championship only once. A title is within reach for Coach Frank Martin, particularly if the Gamecocks can turn back Kentucky on Saturday in Columbia, S.C. AP

The experience of following Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball has always struck me as unique.

Reason being, the games that really animate the UK fan base are almost never contests against Kentucky’s foes in the Southeastern Conference.

Big non-league matchups versus UK’s basketball peer group — this season, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Louisville — generate the most fan passion.

The rest of the year is spent anticipating the NCAA Tournament — the contests that ultimately determine how the Kentucky fan base judges the season.

Most years, SEC games almost seem an obligatory form of drudgery. When your team has won 46 league titles, it’s understandable why it’s hard to work up much passion about conference play.

This year, SEC basketball has suddenly gotten interesting. Kentucky now finds itself part of a five-team scrum for the SEC regular-season title that should be wildly entertaining.

With seven games left, Kentucky, LSU and South Carolina (all 8-3 in SEC contests) are in a three-way tie for the league lead. One game back are Florida and slumping Texas A&M.

To set the stage for that battle for the SEC title, a look at what all five championship contenders bring to the table — and what they face down the stretch of the season:

Kentucky

Basic numbers: 18-6, 8-3 SEC (No. 15 in official NCAA RPI)

Home/Away games remaining: Three home, four away

Remaining games against the other four title contenders: Four — at South Carolina, at Texas A&M, at Florida, LSU.

All-time SEC titles: 46 (most recent in 2014-15).

Why the Cats will win the SEC title: Muscle memory. It’s what Kentucky does.

Why the Cats won’t win the SEC title: UK faces the toughest remaining schedule of all five contenders. Will the basketball gods really reward a team that blew a 12-point lead and lost at Auburn (9-14) and blew a 21-point lead and lost at Tennessee (12-12) with a league championship?

LSU

Basic numbers: 15-9, 8-3 SEC (No. 78 in official NCAA RPI)

Home/Away games remaining: Four home, three away

Remaining games against other four title contenders: Three — Texas A&M, Florida, at Kentucky

All-time SEC titles: 10 (most recent in 2008-09)

Why the Tigers will win the SEC title: Desperation. Because of shaky early-season play, LSU badly needs wins down the stretch to play its way into the NCAA Tournament. Having Ben Simmons doesn’t hurt.

Why the Tigers won’t win the SEC title: Strategic decision making does not always seem to be an LSU strong suit.

South Carolina

Basic numbers: 21-3, 8-3 SEC (No. 26 in official NCAA RPI)

Home/Away games remaining: Four home, three away

Remaining games against other four title contenders: Two — Kentucky, Florida

All-time SEC titles: One (1996-97)

Why the Gamecocks will win the SEC title: Have easiest remaining schedule of all contenders. Of three remaining road games, two are at Missouri (1-10 SEC) and Mississippi State (3-8).

Why the Gamecocks won’t win the SEC title: Kentucky. Because if UK doesn’t take South Carolina down Saturday at high noon in Columbia, the league title is right there on a silver platter for Frank Martin’s team.

Florida

Basic numbers: 16-8, 7-4 SEC (No. 23 in official NCAA RPI)

Home/Away games remaining: Three home, four away

Remaining games against other four title contenders: Three — at South Carolina, at LSU, Kentucky

All-time SEC titles: Six (most recent in 2013-14)

Why the Gators will win the SEC title: Showed when they rocked then-No. 9 West Virginia 88-71 in Gainesville in the Big 12/SEC Challenge they are capable of beating top-10 foes.

Why the Gators won’t win the SEC title: Four road contests left will prove too much for a team that is 2-6 in away games.

Texas A&M

Basic numbers: 18-6, 7-4 SEC (No. 19 in official NCAA RPI)

Home/Away games remaining: Four home, three away

Remaining games against other four title contenders: Two — at LSU, Kentucky

All-time SEC titles: None (the Aggies did not enter the league until 2012-13)

Why the Aggies will win the SEC title: Until two weeks ago, A&M appeared to be the best all-around team in the SEC.

Why the Aggies won’t win the SEC title: Team with recent history of fading late in season has now dropped four league games in a row. Included was a crushing 81-78 home loss to South Carolina that could prove to be the pivotal SEC game of the season.

SEC standings

SEC

All

South Carolina

8-3

21-3

Kentucky

8-3

18-6

LSU

8-3

15-9

Texas A&M

7-4

18-6

Florida

7-4

16-8

Georgia

6-5

13-9

Vanderbilt

6-5

14-10

Ole Miss

5-6

15-9

Alabama

5-6

14-9

Arkansas

5-6

12-12

Tennessee

5-6

12-12

Mississippi State

3-8

10-13

Auburn

3-8

9-14

Missouri

1-10

8-16

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