Kentucky Invitational
Undefeated ‘Cats overwhelming favorite at SEC

The 2015 Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball Championship arrived at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday night, and it is seen as little more than ‘The Kentucky Invitational.’ The Wildcats became the first power conference team since Indiana in 1976, to go through the regular season without a loss. Kentucky stands 31-0, 18-0 in conference play. It’s the second consecutive year a team enters the tournament 18-0 in SEC games. Florida did it last year and won the title, over Kentucky.

The ‘Cats have not won this tournament in four years. Something they want to reverse this weekend. Can anyone derail the ‘pursuit of perfection’? Kentucky has shown vulnerabilities, particularly with interior defense. LSU exploited that to great effect when they played earlier this season with the tandem of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. These two teams could meet in the semifinals.

This tournament is also about the upcoming NCAA Tournament, with teams posturing to get in, improve their seeding and generally their lot in life. For the first time in four years, the SEC seems poised to land as many as six teams in the NCAAs, though Texas A&M has been showing up on the wrong side of the bubble in some ‘bracketology’ projections. They faced a must-win for their hopes on Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s tilt between Mississippi State and Auburn.

In addition to Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss seem secure to get in the big dance—but any slip-ups are not recommended. Another team to watch is streaking Vanderbilt. The Commodores stand 19-12 overall, 9-9 in the SEC, in seventh place. But Vandy has won five straight, six out of seven, and eight out of 10. Vanderbilt clashed with Tennessee on Thursday night. A win there would set up a game against Arkansas, and put them in the semifinals likely against Georgia or Ole Miss. If they can get that far, they have a real case to get in. I certainly believe it is possible. No one wants to play them right now.

In Friday’s Quarterfinals, I project you will see Kentucky vs. Florida; LSU vs. Texas A&M; Arkansas vs. Vanderbilt; and Georgia vs. Ole Miss. The Gators enter the tournament at 15-16 in what has been Coach Billy Donovan’s toughest season. But they are dangerous. LSU can take over a game inside, and have found a star in junior Keith Hornsby. Hornsby, the son of Grammy winner Bruce Hornsby, hit a corner three at the buzzer to beat Arkansas in Fayetteville in the regular season finale. Ole Miss took Kentucky to double overtime in the conference opener and can get hot behind the duo of Stefan Moody and Jarvis Summers.

The conference awards were handed out on Tuesday with Bobby Portis of Arkansas winning Player of the Year in a bit of a surprise. The SEC has gone with the trend of oversized all-conference teams. There are nine each on the first and second teams. The first team has Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky; Martin and Mickey from LSU; Portis, Moody, Josh Richardson from Tennessee (who would have been my Player of the Year); Danuel House of A&M; and Damian Jones from Vanderbilt.

John Calipari won Coach of the Year with Cauley-Stein winning Defensive Player of the Year, Towns winning Freshman of the Year, and Devin Booker continuing the Kentucky haul in winning Sixth Man of the Year. It is assumed Kentucky will roll this weekend. They may, but it will be a championship earned if it is to be theirs.