Kentucky is Suddenly in Control of the SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 19th, 2016

On February 2, Kentucky inexplicably blew a 21-point first half lead against a mediocre Tennessee team in Knoxville as the Vols upset the Wildcats. John Calipari’s team at the time sat 6-3 in league play, while Texas A&M, at 7-1 and on a major roll, appeared in complete control. LSU, which had won at Auburn on the same night, was also ahead of the Wildcats at 7-2 and the Tigers finally appeared to be hitting their stride. Just 17 short days later, the Aggies have now lost four of five games and LSU is coming off a perplexing home loss to Alabama. For its part, Kentucky has not lost since, and after exacting some revenge against Tennessee on Thursday night with an 80-70 win in Rupp Arena, it’s difficult to argue that the Wildcats are not once again the team to beat with five games remaining. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is producing at a Player of the Year level (Getty)

The Wildcats have flourished despite losing their most consistent low-post threat and third-leading scorer, Alex Poythress, to injury. But thanks to dominant backcourt play from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as well as an increase in production from junior forward Derek Willis, Kentucky has seized control of the league race and appears ready to climb the national rankings back into the top 10. Willis, who hardly played during his first two seasons in Lexington, scored a career-high 25 points in Thursday night’s win and has capably filled a void left by Poythress’ absence and the inability of freshman Skal Labissiere to consistently produce.

All of that is fine and well, but make no mistake, Kentucky looks Kentucky again because of the All-America season Ulis is putting together. The sophomore currently ranks ninth in the country at 6.7 assists per game, and his ability to completely take over a game at 5’9″ is exceptional. Backcourt partner Murray has clearly been the cream of the crop of this year’s wave of Cal’s recruits — the Canadian import leads the team in scoring (18.8 PPG) and is averaging a blistering 28.2 PPG during the Wildcats’ current four-game winning streak. You would be hard-pressed to find a better backcourt in America, and while Kentucky has certainly struggled at times this season, the pair of Ulis and Murray will give it a chance for another deep run in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Even though the Wildcats are now a game clear of the SEC field with only five remaining, winning another regular season title will not come easy. The remaining schedule is brutal — at least by SEC standards — as each of the team’s remaining opponents is either an NCAA Tournament lock or has a legitimate shot at a bid. Kentucky travels to Texas A&M tomorrow for a marquee showdown with only one day of rest, while the Aggies have had three days off after Tuesday’s home win against Ole Miss. If A&M can beat Kentucky, the league will once again be up for grabs. After that game in College Station, the Wildcats host a red-hot Alabama team next week before road trips to Vanderbilt and Florida — both of which are in dire need of resume-building wins. Kentucky finishes the season with a home game against LSU that could be for the league title.

If the Wildcats can finish the deal and win another SEC regular season championship, they will have certainly earned it. Given where they sat just two-and-a-half short weeks ago,  it would represent a championship that didn’t seem likely. But we’ve all seen this movie in the SEC before, and we should have known that counting Kentucky out when it comes to improvement and success is never wise. Based on the way they’re playing right now, won’t we all be surprised if they don’t finish the job?

David Changas (166 Posts)

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