With the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament under way in Nashville, the SEC finds itself in an unprecedented place in the national spotlight.
John Calipari is circling the wagons with his Kentucky team entering SEC Tournament play.
With Florida being the only conference team guaranteed a ticket to the NCAA tournament, the SEC finds itself rated behind all the "power" conferences - and the Mountain West.
Kentucky and four others – Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Ole Miss – hope to show the tournament committee that they are worthy of an at-large bid should they fall short of running the table in Music City. In that sense, the Wildcats should approach this weekend as if they have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Most were not fair when setting preseason expectations for this Kentucky team. This was a squad with one returning top-eight rotation player (Kyle Wiltjer). The Cats were coming off a season in which they placed six players into the NBA.
Blue Ribbon picked the Wildcats third in their preseason ranking off the strength of a great recruiting class and a few key pieces via transfer, redshirt and walk-ons. John Calipari's success last season became the barometer by which his future teams will be measured - and that’s just not fair. Kentucky was fighting this perception much of the season while also trying to go through the maturation process and development into a cohesive team.
After big man Nerlens Noel was lost for the season with a knee injury and the Cats suffered a few uncomfortable losses, Calipari publicly asked that the blame be put on his shoulders. A few UK players absolved Calipari, but the coaches' public statements seemed to ease the players' burden a bit and allow the 'Cats to play free.
Most have dismissed Kentucky as a contender for the national championship this season. TeamRankings.com runs thousands of simulations, and the site gives Kentucky less than one-half of one percentage point chance to win the title.
Indiana, Florida, Duke, Louisville, Kansas and Gonzaga are the favorites, and people have already started looking past this Wildcat team toward the incredibly talented recruiting class that is headed to Lexington next season. The perception now is that blending the talent of the incoming recruits with the returning nucleus of this year’s team should make Kentucky the team to beat in 2014.
People have stopped thinking about this team as one that can be dangerous this year. That could be a mistake.
Wiltjer is Kentucky's "X-factor."
Under the radar for the first time all season and with no more true road games left to play, Kentucky can play loose and with confidence after beating a very good Florida team to end the regular season.
The freshman trio of Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein continue to show flashes of their immense talent. Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Jarrod Polson are starting to embrace their roles and mature with their decision making and shot selection. The aforementioned Wiltjer has struggled recently, but there is no denying his offensive talent. He has emerged as this team’s X-factor, and can make this good team a great one when he’s making shots.
This team seems to finally be comfortable with its identity. The Wildcats need to defend and take advantage of transition opportunities. They need to work to find their capable scorers uncontested shots. These things are possible – as the upset of Florida showed.
This certainly isn’t Calipari's best team, and the Cats are long-shots to repeat. However, betting against Kentucky is a losing proposition.
There is still plenty of roar left in these Wildcats.
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and is a popular guest on radio. He now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to 247Sports.com’s coverage of college basketball. Klein can be followed on Twitter at @LeighAlanKlein.
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