John Clay

Five questions as Kentucky tries to win its fifth straight SEC Tournament

John Calipari got his SEC Tournament wish

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari tells the media what he thanked his team for after UK defeated Florida 66-57 on Saturday, March 9, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Wildcats next play in the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari tells the media what he thanked his team for after UK defeated Florida 66-57 on Saturday, March 9, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Wildcats next play in the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

Time to rock and roll.

Time for the postseason. Time for what matters. We all know March matters. In college basketball, it’s all that truly matters. The previous three months were just preliminaries for the postseason. The is part of the season when it all gets real.

This week is a Big Dance walk-through. It’s conference tournament week. For Kentucky, that means the SEC Tournament in Nashville. John Calipari doesn’t care. But you care. And I care. Members of the Big Blue Nation who make their way to Bridgestone Arena sure do care.

After all, Kentucky is looking for a fifth straight SEC tourney title. So here are five important questions about this year’s UK team heading into this year’s conference tournament.

1. Will Reid Travis be back?

Important question. Timely question. Calipari has kept any relevant info close to his vest. Saturday, he promised to do backflips if Travis plays. He also said that he’d figure it out if Travis doesn’t play. The guess here is the 6-foot-8 power forward will be back Friday night. Travis will have had another week to wrap up rehab. He can knock off the rust for when the Big Dance starts. And it starts soon.

2. What is Kentucky’s strength heading to Music City?

Defense. Defense. Defense. Only Duke shot 50 percent against UK. (To be exact, Duke shot 54.4 percent.) Nine of 18 league foes failed to shoot 40 percent. The Cats held 13 of 31 opponent to less than 60 points. UK beat all 13. Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency numbers rank UK eighth nationally. Defense might not win all championships, but it’s a mighty fine way to start.

3. What are Kentucky’s weaknesses heading to Music City?

Carelessness with the basketball. The Cats are 184th nationally in turnover percentage. They lose the ball on 18.6 percent of possessions. Not good. In UK’s 66-57 Saturday win over Florida, UK committed 11 turnovers. Florida committed six. UK was credited with nine assists. Florida had 14. Postseason basketball, every possession counts. Ball security counts.

Plus, the Cats will have to hit some shots. Calipari insists this is a good perimeter shooting team. One of his best. He’s right. And wrong. The Cats are shooting 35.9 percent from three-point range. That ranks 97th nationally. Not awful. Not great. On occasion, the Cats go stone cold from the outside. They were 5-for-19 from three in the 71-52 loss at Tennessee. Cal even said his shooters were “intimidated.” They were 5-for-19 from three in the home loss to LSU. At least one game, the Cats must make some threes. Can they?

4. Which player must lift his game in Nashville?

Point guard is key. Said it before. Rinse and repeat. The conference is full of terrific point guards. LSU’s Tremont Waters. Tennessee’s Jordan Bone. Auburn’s Jared Harper. Mississippi State’s Lamar Peters. Florida’s Andrew Nembhard. Those are just a few. UK’s Ashton Hagans took the freshman rollercoaster. He did reach double figures in scoring each of the last two games. But he also turned it over six times compared to four assists. Teams have adjusted to his sticky fingers. Hagans has just three steals his last six games.

5. Will Kentucky win its 32nd SEC Tournament?

The path won’t be easy. First game, UK must play either an Alabama team it lost to in the regular season or an Ole Miss team it defeated by a mere four points. Second game, it could play No. 3 seed Tennessee. The Vols blasted the Blue in Knoxville just over a week ago. Third game, UK could face No. 1 seed LSU. The Tigers defeated Kentucky in Rupp. They lost just two league games.

Never mind. Forget LSU. Too much Cajun country chaos. Coach Will Wade is under indefinite suspension. Key guard Javonte Smart is out amid investigation questions. Says here Saturday’s second semifinal decides the tournament champ. Round 3: Kentucky vs. Tennessee. Because Kentucky cares, rubber match to the Cats.

Next game

No. 6 Kentucky vs. Mississippi or Alabama

7 p.m. Friday in SEC Tournament quarterfinals in Nashville (SEC Network)

SEC Tournament

At Bridgestone Arena in Nashville

Wednesday’s first round

Missouri vs. Georgia, 7 p.m.

Texas A&M vs. Vanderbilt, 9:30 p.m.

Thursday’s second round

Florida vs. Arkansas, 1 p.m.

Auburn vs. Missouri-Georgia winner, 3:30 p.m.

Mississippi vs. Alabama, 7 p.m.

Mississippi State vs. Texas A&M-Vanderbilt winner, 9:30 p.m.

Friday’s quarterfinals

LSU vs. Florida-Arkansas winner, 1 p.m.

South Carolina vs. Auburn—Missouri-Georgia winner, 3:30 p.m.

Kentucky vs. Mississippi-Alabama winner, 7 p.m.

Tennessee vs. Mississippi State—Texas A&M-Vanderbilt winner, 9:30 p.m.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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