But it didn't happen. The Cats didn't win. They lost. And they lost ugly, dropping their 4th SEC home game by 15 points on senior night. So rather than arriving in Nashville, flying high as a team peaking at just the right time, the Cats will instead limp into the tournament playing in Thursday's qualifying round against Ole Miss for the right to face Alabama on Friday. Winning three games in three days is daunting enough to win the SEC Tournament, but four games in four days? The impact of today's loss did not escape coach Tubby Smith.
"We have our work cut out for us," coach Tubby Smith said. "We came into today's game feeling pretty good. It is tough to come home and lose when you think you are playing well. We played well in a tough loss at LSU, and then got some momentum with the win against Tennessee. You want to continue to build on it."
"It was a real disappointment," said senior Ravi Moss. "We had a lot going for us today – senior day, the chance to win ourselves a bye on Thursday, the momentum of another win. It was really disappointing."
There is also the added bonus of knowing that, at 19-11 overall (9-7 SEC), should the Cats stub their toe and lose to Ole Miss, the team will be sweating out selection Sunday as a bubble team – a team that ESPN shows pictures of sitting nervously on the couch watching the brackets unfold, desperately looking for their name to show up.
Even though Ole Miss has lost 12 of its last 13 games, including a 40-point stomping by Kentucky, the Cats can ill-afford to look past the Rebels. "We can't take them for granted," said Smith. "In their last game, they almost beat LSU in Baton Rouge. Joe Crawford, one of Sunday's few bright points for Kentucky, understood this all too well, "We know we are running out of time," said the Michigan sophomore who led the Cats in scoring with 21 points. "We have to shake this game off and go out there and win on Thursday. We really wanted to win today to make that NCAA bid more secure and get the bye, but we ran out of gas in the second half."
So what must the Cats do to turn things around at such a critical juncture? "We've got to hit open shots for one thing," said Smith. "We'd been shooting pretty well, and came out today just flat."
Indeed the Cats had shot over 50% from the field in four of the last five games. On Sunday, they shot 37.9%, their worst shooting effort since the first Vanderbilt game in January. Senior Patrick Sparks, who had shot 17-32 in his previous four outings, was just 3-10 from the field.
"We really need Patrick to step up and hit those shots," said center Randolph Morris. "We are just so much better when he is shooting well. It really extends the defense and opens up a lot of opportunities. I think we have to do a much better job rebounding as well."
To that point, before Sunday, the Cats had outrebounded four of its last five opponents. The only game they were outrebounded? The loss to LSU. On Sunday, the Cats were beaten on the glass badly, 39-27.
"We gave up a lot of size," said senior Brandon Stockton. "We gave them second and third opportunities all night long. We can't do that and expect to win a lot of ball games."
So, does this Wildcats team have the ability to shake off a devastating loss like this and get play well in this tournament?
It won't be easy, though the good news is, the way the bracket has shaken out, the Cats would not have to face Vandy or Florida, teams they are 0-4 against this year, until Sunday's final, if the Cats are fortunate enough to advance. Should the Cats get by Ole Miss on Thursday as expected, they will next face Alabama on Friday. The Tide beat the Cats in Rupp earlier this year but are only 3-3 in their last six games. The Tide are only 3-5 in SEC play away from home. Should the Cats get by Alabama, it may face a rubber match with Tennessee on Saturday.
"It's a new season," said Tubby Smith.
...and potentially a short one.