LEXINGTON, Ky. --- As Tubby Smith prepares Kentucky for another march upon Atlanta, he likes the way the Wildcats are shaping up for postseason play.
"We're really excited about finishing the season on an uptick as we have," Smith said Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum before UK departed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"Although we have not won every game we wanted to win, or we didn't always play our best, we seem to be responding the right way at the right time. I'm very pleased with where we are at this point in time, with the team and with the players."
Kentucky (20-8, 10-6 SEC) is seeking its ninth SEC Tournament title in the last 11 years and 24th overall, more than all of the other league teams combined. The No. 12 Cats own a first-round bye and will face the winner of Thursday's Ole Miss-South Carolina matchup on Friday at 10 p.m. ET in the Georgia Dome.
The Dome has been especially kind to UK over the years. The Cats have posted a 13-1 record while claiming three SEC Tournament titles (1995-98-99) and a pair of NCAA Tournament victories there.
Smith said the strength and parity of the SEC this season means the uncertainty of the Cats' first opponent will pose a special challenge.
"We're not sure who we're playing, but obviously they're two good teams in South Carolina (16-13, 6-10) and Mississippi (20-9, 9-7)," he said. "Mississippi coming off a great win against a very good Alabama team is enough concern for anyone, but then again you can't look past South Carolina because they've been playing pretty well also. I've been very impressed with Dave Odom. They gave us trouble down there with their traps, traps on the ball, forcing a lot of turnovers."
The Rebels closed the season with an eye-popping 84-56 rout of No. 6 Alabama, the SEC regular season champion. Kentucky won its regular season matchup with Ole Miss 87-64 on Jan. 15 at Rupp Arena, one of the Cats' most complete performances of the season.
Kentucky swept South Carolina for the fifth straight season, winning 51-50 in Columbia on Jan. 12 with the help of Cliff Hawkins' last-second shot, and claiming a decisive 91-74 victory on Feb. 2 in Lexington.
"Both teams run a type of offense that can cause some problems for you, the motion offense," Smith said. "South Carolina is probably a little more inside-oriented, but Chuck Eidson (9.3 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.6 spg) is really coming on and playing well, and Jamel Bradley (13.4 ppg) is an outstanding shooter. Mississippi, in Jason Harrison (10.1 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Justin Reed (14.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), has two premier players."
Smith said no team in the SEC Tournament field can be overlooked. The No. 6 seed in each division each own impressive victories over the league's top teams. South Carolina defeated SEC East co-champ and top-seeded Georgia 80-67, and Auburn owns a 59-56 win over Alabama.
"When I look around the conference and this tournament --- as I said from the beginning of the year --- it's as competitive as it's ever been," Smith said.
According to Smith, the Cats will spend very little time adding to the gameplan they've used in recent weeks.
"I think at this point in time, you have to look at little wrinkles that you may have to change or adapt or adjust because everybody has seen everybody play," he said. "Now it's a matter of execution. It's not a matter of doing anything differently.
"You're not going to add plays or anything. We may put in a different out-of-bounds play. But mostly we'll work on late-game situations, time and score, and shoot a lot more. We're trying to get up a bunch of shots right now."
Defense, he said, will be one of the keys to the tournament. He also cited rebounding and free throw shooting as the main areas of concern.
"With everybody back, a full complement of players, we can be a very vicious defensive team," Smith said. "...Those are things that can help you win in these type of tournaments because you're not always going to make shots. If you can force your opponents to take force shots and make tough plays, you can frustrate your opponent.
"Then you've got to be able to make shots. Obviously, making shots is critical in postseason play. And I think sharing the ball and playing with energy are important. Your defense has got to be solid and you've got to raise your level of play because everybody else is executing pretty well, too, by this time of year."
Senior forward Tayshaun Prince (17.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) leads UK into the postseason.
"He will deliver," Smith said of Prince. "He's a gamer. There's no one I'd rather have the ball in the hands of than Tayshaun Prince... in the country."
But Smith said the Cats also need a big postseason from junior guard Keith Bogans, who has struggled with consistency all year long. The preseason All-America pick is averaging only 10.8 points per game and shooting just 39 percent from the field, 31 percent from 3-point range.
"It's going to be critical," Smith said of Bogans' performance. "He's got to be able to make shots. That's why we've been committed to him to helping him reach his potential and keep getting after it. He's probably as good a one-on-one player as we have on the team, so we need him to create shots like he did last year.
"With him in the right frame of mind and the right energy --- letting him know that we believe in him, we know he can do it and we trust him --- is critical."