LEMOND: Former UK greats look ahead to SEC Tourney

For all practical purposes the Southeastern Conference might as well be renamed the annual SEC tournament the "UK Invitational." If you're a college basketball fan in the south, chances are that you already know that the Cats have won more SEC tournament titles than all the other SEC schools combined.

Now that the regular season is over we can turn our attention to the SEC Tournament, a tournament that the Cats have dominated over the years. Two players that know a lot about winning in that Tournament are former UK standouts Ed Davendar and Jeff Sheppard.

In the 45 years of the SEC tournament, UK has won 25 tournament championships, and since the tourney was renewed in 1979, Kentucky has walked away with the championship trophy 12 times. "We see all the trophies in the trophy case from previous teams, and you want to be a part of that," said former UK guard Ed Davender, "and the only way to be a part of it is to cut down the nets."

Davender won two SEC tourney titles as a Kentucky Wildcat. In 1988 he led the Wildcats with 23 points, four rebounds and five assists in a tight 62-57 win over Georgia in the championship game. Ed thinks this year's team can win another title as well. "They've got good leaders in Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike. They've tasted success. They know what it's like. They can guide the inexperienced guys in the right direction." Kentucky dominated the SEC tournament in the 1990's winning seven SEC tournament crowns and only losing one SEC tournament game in the entire decade - the 1996 championship game against Mississippi State.

Jeff Sheppard played on four of those SEC tournament championship teams in the 90's, and was named the tourney MVP in 1998, where he scored 17 points and pulled down 5 rebounds in the championship game against Arkansas. "Fans expect us to win, " he said. "Everybody expects us to win, and we go into the SEC tourney with that mentality, not cocky and not overconfident, but with the attitude that we are going to win this thing. If not, it's a major upset."

During UK's run in 1998, Kentucky not only won the title, they crushed their three opponents, winning by an average of 22 points, including an 86-56 win over South Carolina in the championship game. "We always felt like it was so important this time of year to be playing well," Sheppard said. "It was important for us to go into the SEC tourney to win it, but it was more important to be playing well and peaking, and to use the SEC tourney as a springboard into March Madness." "Winning the SEC tourney was just the first step."

Kentucky will enter this SEC tournament as the preeminent favorite to win it all yet again. Will the tradition continue this year? We're about to find out.

RYAN LEMOND is one of the more recognizeable faces on local TV in Lexington as the sportscaster for WLEX-TV, channel 18 in Lexington.  You can read Ryan Lemond articles here on Kentucky Sports Report several times a week as well as Kentucky Sports Report - the magazine.  If you have a question or comment, ask him on the message boards.

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