How UK’s SEC semifinal was an NCAA Tournament preview
In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament:
1. UK as a No. 1 seed is probably out
After losing two out of three games to Tennessee, it’s hard to see Kentucky getting one of the four No. 1 seeds when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee announces its 68-team field on Sunday night. If Tennessee defeats Auburn in the SEC title game Sunday — or even if the Vols lose — Rick Barnes is now a likely No. 1 seed.
Kentucky is probably a No. 2. In what region, who knows? It could be Kansas City, with an ACC team taking the top seed. Or it could be in the East, where another ACC team is the likely No. 1. Or perhaps the committee makes Kentucky the top No. 2 seed and puts the Cats out West, where Gonzaga could be the No. 1 seed.
It’s all conjecture at this point. But playing in Louisville seems out. Despite the committee’s statements earlier this week that it would have no qualms about placing Kentucky as the No. 2 seed in the South Regional that ends up at the KFC Yum Center, it’s hard to see the Cats headed to the River City now.
And it’s all about matchups anyway. Where Kentucky goes doesn’t matter near as much who it plays once it gets there. And UK will have to execute better than it did the final 2:58 on Saturday, when it let a 72-64 lead over the Vols slip through its fingers.
Tyler Herro was called for walking in the backcourt. After PJ Washington scored to put UK up 74-69, Keldon Johnson was called for stepping out of bounds at the 1:42 mark. Washington follows his own miss to make it 76-75, but the Cats failed to get a defensive rebound at either end and that led to Lamonte Turner’s three-pointer with 29 seconds left that gave UT a 78-76 lead.
2. PJ Washington must shake the foul trouble habit
Kentucky’s sophomore forward has fallen into the bad habit of picking up two fouls. In the 71-52 loss at Tennessee on March 2, Washington picked up his second foul and a seat on the bench with 8:23 to go in the first half. UK trailed 20-18. By halftime, the Tennessee lead was 37-24.
Three days later at Ole Miss, Washington picked up his second foul with 14:46 left in the first half. Again, he sat the rest of the half. Ole Miss led 39-38 at the break. UK rallied for an 80-76 win, but John Calipari warned that the Cats were playing with fire.
On Saturday, Washington became entangled with Tennessee reserve Derrick Walker with 14:18 left in the first half. After a monitor review, both players were assessed flagrant fouls. That was Washington’s second personal foul. He sat the rest of the half, making his first half stat line: two points in six minutes.
Luckily, UK trailed just 36-34 at the break. With Washington, however, the Cats could have been up at halftime. After all, the 6-foot-8 forward scored 14 points in the second half and helped the Cats’ cause on the way to that eight-point lead with under three minutes to go.
That can’t happen in the NCAA Tournament. The teams are too good, the stakes too high, for UK to get 20 minutes out of its best player.
3. Give Tennessee a ton credit
As bitter as the defeat was for the UK faithful, the game itself was a terrific game in a terrific atmosphere, won by a terrific team. Give Rick Barnes’ team credit. Tennessee takes a 29-4 record into Sunday’s SEC Tournament title game against Bruce Pearl and Auburn. (Tennessee vs. Pearl for the title.)
The Vols hit clutch shots when they had to hit clutch shots. Admiral Schofield hit a three with 1:59 left to cut UK’s lead to 74-72. Then Grant Williams buried an open three from the right corner with 1:29 left to put Tennessee ahead 75-74.
Then there was Lamonte Turner. The UT guard was 2-for-11 from the floor, including 0-for-7 from three-point range, in the Vols’ 17-point loss in Lexington. Even in Tennessee’s 19-point win over Kentucky in Knoxville, Turner was 2-for-10 from the floor, including 0-for-4 from three-point range. Totals: 4-for-21 from the floor, including 0-for-11 from three.
Yet with 29 seconds left, it was Turner who drilled a three from the top of the key to put the Vols ahead 78-76. And when Washington missed a pair of contested shots around the rim, Vols’ point guard Jordan Bone made four three throws — two with 10.9 seconds left two more with 2.4 seconds left — to clinch the win.
Last year, Tennessee beat Kentucky twice in the regular season, then lost to the Cats 77-72 in the SEC Tournament finals in St. Louis. This year, Tennessee won two of the three meetings between the two schools. But who knows? Maybe there will be a fourth.