John Calipari says Kentucky Wildcats have work cut out for them to claim SEC title

With three games remaining in the regular season, Kentucky holds a one-game lead over South Carolina and Texas A&M and a two-game lead over Vanderbilt and LSU for the SEC championship.

The No. 16 Wildcats may be in the best position to claim the school's 47th league title, but UK head coach John Calipari said Friday "it doesn't look promising."

Kentucky (21-7, 11-4 SEC) must play road games at two of the SEC's tougher venues -- on Saturday at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym and on Tuesday at Florida's O'Connell Center -- before closing out the regular season March 5 at home against LSU and All-American candidate Ben Simmons, who beat the Cats 85-67 earlier this season in Baton Rouge.

All three of those teams find themselves on the NCAA "bubble" and could be playing in desperation mode down the stretch.

“It’s going to be hard for us because of the schedules, when you look at the schedules," Calipari said. "But, we’re going to play the games, and I’m more concerned about us getting better. We have two tough road games and a team (LSU) that beat our brains in down there. We could lose all three. But, if we’re playing at a high level and doing what we’re supposed to, we’ll be going into the tournament, and we’ll be fine. We’ll build in the SEC Tournament.You can’t really tell. Right now it doesn’t look promising. But, we’ll see.” 

"You can’t really tell. Right now it doesn’t look promising. But, we’ll see.” 

South Carolina (23-5, 10-5 SEC) closes at Mississippi State, at home against Georgia and on the road again at Arkansas. Kentucky holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Gamecocks thanks to its 89-62 win in Columbia earlier this month, the only regular-season meeting between the two teams. Texas A&M (21-7, 10-5) seems a more likely threat to UK with games at Missouri and Auburn (who are a combined 8-22 in league play) before closing at home against Vandy.

The Commodores (17-11, 9-6 SEC) could narrow the lead to one game on Saturday. Kentucky beat Vandy 76-57 on January 23 in Rupp Arena, but the 'Dores are always much more formidable in the quirky confines of Memorial Gym. They are 12-2 at home this season; only 3-8 in road games.

“After they left us they took a little dip, but they’ve won their last two," Calipari said. "They’re really rebounding the ball. They’re scoring the ball around the basket. (Damian) Jones is really doing well. They’re playing a little bigger at guard. They’re defending. It’s always a hard game up there. It’s a hard game.”

UK has lost six of its last 10 road trips to Nashville. 

Will Humphries Factor Into Matchup? 

The last time UK and Vandy played, Isaac Humphries did not leave the Wildcats' bench. But since that time, the 7-foot freshman center has become a vital part of UK's rotation as fellow freshman Skal Labissiere has struggled and players like Alex Poythress and Derek Willis have been slowed by injuries.

This may be a tough matchup for the young Aussie, though.

“Their size is their jump shooters," Calipari said of the Commodores. "I mean, they’ll go inside – the big kids will. (Humphries) gotta be able to play the guy out on the floor. That’s a big thing with him. If he can do that, then you can leave him in the game. If he can’t -- and it’s not like the guy is beating you off the dribble. You just gotta be able to be in a help position and make sure he’s not getting off 3s.”  

Calipari said Friday that he wasn't sure about Willis' status, but the junior forward still had a walking "boot" on his severely sprained ankle as reporters made their way into the Craft Center interview area. Poythress returned for UK's previous game against Alabama, scoring 14 points in 17 minutes off the bench.

Best Backcourt in The Country?

Although his frontcourt has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency this season, Calipari raved Friday about the progress the UK backcourt has made. Entering Saturday's game against Vandy, sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis is averaging 16.7 points and 7.0 assists per game, while freshman 2-guard Jamal Murray is posting a team-leading 19.4 points per game and freshman wing Isaiah Briscoe is contributing 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. 

“Earlier in the year there was nobody talking about (Ulis) for player of the year," the UK boss said. "Now he’s talked about player of the year. You look at Jamal, there were big questions on Jamal two months ago. Now, all of a sudden, ‘He can play with anybody.' 'This is the best guard tandem.’ You look at Isaiah, the question marks they had, now they’re saying, ‘Just make one or two shots.' ... This kid really defends and rebounds.'That’s the best thing about when you’re doing this.

"That’s the best thing about when you’re doing this. Basically, every day is, will you embrace the process? Just embrace it. And the guys that embrace the process, you see them improve."

Among teams nationally, No. 3 Oklahoma also can make a pretty strong claim on the "best backcourt" claim. The Sooners feature national player of the year favorite Buddy Hield (25.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) on one wing, Jordan Woodard (13.1 ppg) on the other and Isaiah Cousins (13.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.6 apg) at the point. All three players are shooting better than 43 percent from 3-point range this season.

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