UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky confident going into ‘wide-open’ SEC Tournament

Two facts that suggest anything can happen and any team can win the Southeastern Conference Tournament:

▪  Tennessee and Auburn, the teams in the so-called “play-in” game Wednesday night, both beat Kentucky, which shared the regular-season championship with Texas A&M.

The deans of SEC coaches — Andy Kennedy (10 years at Ole Miss) and Kevin Stallings (17 years at Vanderbilt) — said the tournament is more wide open than they remember.

“No Anthony Davis walking through here,” Kennedy said Wednesday during his team’s shoot-around. “No Joakim Noah.”

▪  Two players who say a Kentucky team coming off two encouraging victories last week is well-equipped to dominate again. Even the prospect of UK’s relative lack of depth and three games in three days failed to dilute the optimism.

“We’re used to practicing every day and competing and just getting better,” guard Jamal Murray said this week. “So this should be a cakewalk for us to go in there and compete.”

Download, print SEC bracket.

Point guard Tyler Ulis, who is averaging more minutes than any UK player in at least 35 years, conceded that depth can be an important factor.

“Our bench is probably going to have to step up and do their job, which they have (done) a lot this year,” he said. “And I feel like we’ll be fine.”

Among SEC coaches made available to the media Wednesday, only Ben Howland of Mississippi State strayed from the any team-can-win-it orthodoxy.

“I think Kentucky is the favorite,” he said matter-of-factly. “Probably not to the level it was last year. But still, it’s got to be the favorite.”

When asked why he would favor Kentucky, Howland said, “Because I think they have the best guards in the league. And I think they’re going to have the home-court advantage because of the crowd support they travel with.”

Ulis expected plenty of UK fans in Bridgestone Arena.

“It’s going to be like a home game for us,” he said, “which is great. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. But they want to see us play, and we love it.”

To illustrate the point, Ulis said he and Isaiah Briscoe were looking at photographs of UK fans cheering for the Cats.

“And he said, ‘Is that at Rupp?’” Ulis said. “I said, ‘No, that’s the SEC Tournament.’”

Murray and Ulis agreed with the premise that Kentucky again has shaken off puzzling regular-season losses and is peaking as the post-season begins. Such was the case in 2011 and 2014.

Of course, the Cats are coming off confidence-boosting victories at Florida and against LSU last week.

“We feel confident about ourselves,” Murray said. “Everybody is mentally ready and fresh. ... We played one of our best games so far against LSU.”

Ulis cited the increasing contributions of big men Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress as reason for optimism.

“Right now, I feel really great,” he said, “especially with the ‘bigs’ playing the way they are. Skal’s coming along. Alex is doing his job. Marcus is blocking shots, rebounding. ‘Zay’ (Briscoe) is starting to make shots and free throws. I feel everything is coming along at the right time.”

While Kentucky might feel confident going into the SEC Tournament, the Cats don’t have a monopoly on optimism.

Except for Howland, the SEC coaches spoke of a wide-open competition.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if a number of different teams won it,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said.

Fox then alluded to his team doing the unlikely and winning four games in four days to take the championship. He seemed undaunted even though such a run would require the Bulldogs to win the late games Thursday and Friday, then do a quick turnaround for a mid-afternoon game Saturday, followed by one less hour until Sunday’s 1 p.m. EDT tip-off because of the overnight switch to daylight-saving time.

“I’d love to have that challenge,” Fox said.

Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson saw plenty of contenders.

Asked who they were, he said, “Every team that is playing in this tournament. Guys playing today (Wednesday) to guys that have the seeds.

“Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. It depends on the mind-set of your kids on that day.”

Stallings drew a contrast to the past two years when Florida and Kentucky won the SEC Tournament as prohibitive favorites.

“Something spectacular had to happen to beat them,” he said. “And nobody did.”

That’s not the case this year, Stallings said.

“Most years you come down here and, legitimately, there are two or three or four teams that maybe have a chance,” he said. “Whereas this year there are literally four, five, six teams that could win it.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

When: Through Sunday

Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville

TV: SEC Network (Thursday and Friday), ESPN (Saturday and Sunday)

Kentucky’s opening game: UK plays the winner of Thursday’s Alabama-Mississippi game in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. EST Friday.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader