"Our confidence is down a little bit coming off a loss against a good Florida team, but we are entering a new season now," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, "Often teams get a second wind and have some new life when they enter the post season. We have to go into this tournament with a new mindset."
The Wildcats not only face a potential early elimination in the SEC Tournament, but they also face the possibility of missing the big dance for the first time since 1991, Kentucky's last year of probation, an auspicious parting gift from the Eddie Sutton era. And as if to pile onto the misery of a team mired into SEC mediocrity, there has been rampant speculation about the stability of Tubby Smith's continued employment as the coach of the Wildcats. All in all, it is safe to say that this group of young players and its coaching staff will head into Atlanta shouldering great burdens.
"Atlanta has been a good place for us in the past," Smith said, "so we are hoping that our kids are excited to be here. We have a few kids from the area so I know they will be happy to be playing here." Last season, Kentucky fans thought it very unlikely that things could get worse for the Wildcats. That team was a whisker away from committing the ultimate sin against the Bluegrass State, losing to North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, and Louisville all in the same year. A 73-61 victory against the Cards narrowly averted that disaster. Still, the 2005-06 version of the Cats caused plenty of concern with its five home losses and two three-game losing streaks.
However, that team had four victories over top 25 teams and peaked toward the end of the season, winning four of its last six regular season games, including a road victory over #11 Tennessee, two victories in the SEC Tournament and a redemption win in the NCAA over Alabama-Birmingham before falling in a tight contest to #2 UCONN.
While the final chapter has yet to be written for this season, the trend is not looking nearly as optimistic as last season at this time. The Cats finished 4th in the SEC East. They head into Wednesday's game 10th in the SEC in steals, last in turnover margin, 11th in offensive rebounds, and ninth in three-point field goal shooting. Last season, the Cats were all but assured an NCAA Tournament invitation with a single victory in the SEC Tourney. This season, one victory will leave the team watching the tournament selection on television biting their nails as a "bubble" team. Frankly, two victories in Atlanta may not guarantee a bid. If the Wildcats are fortunate enough to beat their opening opponent, Alabama, it will face Mississippi State on Friday. Neither those opponents are ranked which would still leave UK winless against the top 25 in the nation.
Still, the Wildcats have a Sagarin ranking of #19 in the nation and a high RPI, largely due to the strength of Kentucky's overall schedule. In addition, the Wildcats have won 20 games yet once again, something that should make a difference if they are on the bubble.
To even reach the bubble, however, Kentucky needs to beat Alabama on Wednesday. Alabama has shared many of the same struggles as Kentucky for much of the season and their fade in the last few games has matched that of the Cats. The Crimson Tide, like UK, lost five of its last seven regular season games and finished third in the SEC West with a 7-9 record. One of those rare down-the-stretch wins came against Kentucky, which committed 17 turnovers along the way.
"In that game, their inside people gave us all kinds of problems," Smith said, "we are going to have to do a much better job against Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix. And we are going to have to get after Ronald Steele, if he plays. He made shots and the big plays down the stretch. We made a run but could not get over the top."
Hendrix had 16 points and nine rebounds against the Cats. Steele had 15 points and seven assists. Steele has been injured and has not played in Alabama's last two games. He is listed as questionable for Wednesday's game.
"His status is day by day," said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, "he hasn't really been healthy all season long. His injuries have really been difficult on this team. We just don't know."
Tubby Smith thinks that, despite the season-ending loss to Florida, the team is playing with some energy, "We played hard against Florida. Joe Crawford played really well. Randolph Morris picking up that 4th foul at the beginning of the second half really hurt us a great deal."
If Kentucky is to win Wednesday, the win may come from the sweat of senior Bobby Perry, who has averaged 20 points per game over the last three games.
"Bobby Perry is a senior and playing well," said Gottfried, "when he plays at the four-spot, you have to really stretch your defense out. You have to send you big guy out 20-feet from the basket. He really gives Kentucky a different dimension when he is playing well."