BASKETBALL: Wildcats Have Title Within Reach

FAYETTEVILLE — For as much as Kentucky has struggled — and there's no doubt it has experienced plenty of tough times under new coach Billy Gillispie — the Wildcats are in a very familiar position as the calendar turns to March.

They're playing for a Southeastern Conference title.

Kentucky's success in league play, after a woeful nonconference season, can reach an unthinkable level against top-ranked Tennessee on Sunday in a game that will be televised by CBS. The Wildcats (16-10, 10-3 in SEC) would move into a first-place tie with a win against the Vols (25-3, 11-2) and, with three games remaining, take a step closer to wrapping up their first regular season title under Gillispie.

"They've found a formula for success," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said when asked what is different about the ‘Cats. "It's with ball control and patience and making sure the ball is in the hands of the three guys (Ramel Bradley, Patrick Patterson and Joe Crawford) that can score it."

Kentucky has crawled into position by winning nine of its past 10 games. Gillispie said he's not really surprised the Wildcats are in their current position, saying the numerous injuries that plagued his bunch slowed them earlier this year.

"If we knew we were going to have relatively good health our team would improve greatly," Gillispie said. "You never know how that's going to equate to wins and losses, but I knew we would improve greatly if we had (injured players) Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks (return)."

Meeks hasn't made it back, but Gillispie said Jasper's return from injury has been a big boost for the Wildcats lately. He's hoping it will help Kentucky beat the top-ranked team.

Tennessee, which lost its first meeting with the Wildcats in Rupp Arena on Jan. 22, is coming off an emotional, 72-69 loss to Vanderbilt. That, of course, came three days after the Volunteers beat Memphis to grab the top spot in the nation.

But Pearl said Tennessee — which will spend one week ranked No. 1 in the nation — must get over its loss quickly.

If not, Kentucky could walk away with the SEC title.

"In a run to a conference championship, every game is a big emotional game," Pearl said. "It's just that for Tennessee, when you're talking about Memphis, Vanderiblt, Kentucky, Florida, it doesn't get any bigger or better than that. It's going to take great emotion and passion in every case."

Don't Forget MSU

But Kentucky and Tennessee aren't the only teams playing for the league title the next week.

Mississippi State (19-8, 10-3) clinched a share of the SEC Western Division title after beating Auburn 89-78 on Wednesday night. The win, coupled with Arkansas' loss at Alabama, gives the Bulldogs a three-game lead on the Razorbacks with three games remaining.

Even more, it keeps them in the thick of the overall league championship race. They are one game behind the Vols, too.

"Probably two weeks ago (the SEC title) wasn't much on the radar screen, but now to say that some people don't think about it, that wouldn't be honest," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "We put ourselves in this situation. The problem is, we need help from other people. We don't control it ourselves. That's never a good situation to be in, but anything can happen with three games left yet."

Barber Won't Return

Auburn coach Jeff Lebo announced Thursday that injured junior Korvotney Barber will not return this season.

Barber has been sidelined with a broken hand since Dec. 29 and has only played in 10 games. At the time of his injury, Barber was leading the team in points (14.8) and rebounds (7.3). He also was shooting an NCAA-best 72 percent.

The Tigers hoped Barber could return to the floor late in the season. Now they'll ask for an NCAA waiver in hopes he will be granted a medical redshirt to regain a season of eligibility.

"Vot was having an outstanding season leading the nation in field goal percentage as well as having the best season of his career," Lebo said in a university statement. "His injury was very fortunate. We expect Vot to make a full recovery from surgery, but just not before this season is complete."

SEC Championship Chase

Teams Record Games Remaining

Tennessee 11-2 Kentucky, at Fla., S.C.

Kentucky 10-3 at Tenn., at S.C., Fla.

Mississippi St. 10-3 at Fla., at Vandy, LSU

Vanderbilt 9-4 at Ark., MSU, at ‘Bama

Florida 8-5 MSU, Tenn., at Kentucky

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