That level of familiarity, and perhaps extra incentive, can lift the underdog to victory if given enough opportunities.
Longtime Kentucky fans can testify. Few postseason losses stung the Big Blue Nation quite like the Wildcats’ 1986 regional final setback to LSU, a team that UK defeated three times that season but was forced to play a fourth time with a trip to the Final Four hanging in the balance. Dale Brown’s Tigers found a way to win the final meeting, and what could have been a national championship for fan favorites like Kenny Walker and Winston Bennett went up in smoke.
But as No. 1 Kentucky prepares to open postseason play against an opponent it will be facing for the third time – either Alabama or Florida on Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals – the Wildcats don’t necessarily share the angst.
“I think that’s, you know, exaggerated a little bit because it’s the next game,” said UK assistant head coach John Robic, who stood in for John Calipari during Tuesday’s press conference prior to the Cats heading to Nashville. “We’re going to play. It’s just the way that the brackets came.
“Actually, for us and them, we get to watch two games of us playing against them as opposed to one. Like, for instance, if we drew Texas A&M, we played them so long ago (Jan. 10) that they’ve played 16 games in between. You don’t have enough time to watch 16 games. So for all three schools, I think familiarity will be a big thing, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Kentucky defeated Florida 67-50 on Saturday in the regular season finale. The Cats also won 68-61 on Feb. 7 in Gainesville. UK won its two matchups with Alabama 70-48 on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa and 70-55 on Jan. 31 in Lexington.
The Gators and Crimson Tide played only once this season, a 52-50 win by Florida at Alabama on Jan. 27. Both teams likely need to win the SEC Tournament to advance to the NCAA field of 68.
No matter who advances in Thursday's matchup, the winner will be facing a coach who is not particularly fond of conference tournaments. Calipari has lamented their existence on many occasions – stopping just short of suggesting they are nothing more than a money grab – and if it were solely up to him, they’d be a thing of the past.
But the UK boss has also learned during his time in Lexington how important the event is to the UK fan base, particularly those who don’t typically get in to games at Rupp Arena and save money all year long to travel with the team during the league tournament.
“That’s why I’m saying let’s play for them,” Calipari said during Monday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “Let them enjoy you for the last time they can see you in person because, again, it’s going to be hard for that core group to get to the NCAA Tournament.”
Robic noted that playing three games in three days (if the Cats advance to the SEC tourney championship game, as expected) is a challenge for any team after the long grind of the regular season.
It’s just tough when you have to play three games in three days and then turn right back around and most likely play on Thursday (in the NCAA tourney),” he said. “That’s tough. Now you’re talking potentially, what, five games in (nine) days? That’s tough going forward. Somebody has to do it, you know. Now, a bunch of leagues have already finished, but most of the bigger leagues are like that. So that’s pretty much the downfall for me is that you jam that much in a short period of time.”
The Cats have a built-in advantage, though, one that most programs don’t enjoy. Their depth, a potential 10- to 11-man rotation. UK may lean on it even more in the SEC tourney, extending the rotation to players like Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis to ensure the team goes into the big dance fresh.
“Oh, you have to,” Robic said. “You have to. I mean, what you’re going to see – like right now, you’ve got some really, really good players that are hurt right now: (Danuel) House at (Texas A&M), (Jordan) Mickey at LSU, (Kenny) Gaines at Georgia. So, hopefully they can come back and play. You’re talking about three all-league players. I can’t remember if Gaines was or not. But all-league players that, the deeper the team, the fresher you can become and your bounce back is quicker. So hopefully that’s the case. Some (teams) are playing four or five guys over 30 minutes.”