Even though Kentucky has now lost four Southeastern Conference road games by two points after Saturday’s 70-68 defeat at Florida, college basketball analyst Larry Conley says the Cats are not out of the SEC race.
Or at least they are not if they beat Tennessee at home Tuesday in a game that he thinks will decide whether Kentucky or Tennessee stays in the league race or goes from contender to pretender.
Florida leads the SEC Eastern Division at 7-2, but does have a home loss to South Carolina along with wins over Tennessee and at Georgia. Tennessee is 5-3, but is coming off a home loss to Alabama and could be without guard Scotty Hopson (sprained ankle) Tuesday. Georgia is 5-4 while UK, Vanderbilt and South Carolina are all 4-4. In the SEC West, surprising Alabama is the overall SEC leader at 7-1.
“Are they out of it? Absolutely not,” said Conley about Kentucky. “I think they are right in the middle of it. There is not anybody moving to the forefront except Alabama, and they beat Kentucky by only two points at home.
“If they hang in, and they need to win desperately against Tennessee, and beat Tennessee, they are right back in the battle. They have not lost a home game. Only Kentucky and Alabama have done that, so some of these other teams are going to lose more games, too.”
Conley thinks the SEC has five legitimate NCAA Tournament teams - Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Alabama. What about Tennessee, which has wins over Big East powers Pittsburgh and Villanova?
“I am not sure about Tennessee. If Hopson is hurt and does not play for a while, that plays havoc with them. They missed him in crunch time Saturday night (against Alabama),” Conley said. “I watched him shoot around Saturday, and he wasn’t making any cuts. He was just shooting jump shots and walking very gingerly. I’m not sure when he’ll be back.
“I am not ready to lay them down as one of the teams I like to be in the NCAA. If they beat Kentucky, I will put them in the mix. That’s why this game is so important. I think whoever loses goes the other direction. Kentucky is very, very good at home.”
Tennessee hosts Florida Saturday and then goes to Vanderbilt. UK has to play at Vanderbilt Saturday.
Conley knows Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl can return to the bench Tuesday after being suspended by the SEC for the first eight games for lying to NCAA investigators, a fact he knows is not lost on UK coach John Calipari.
“Cal realizes what is at stake in this game. Kentucky cannot lose. They have to hold court,” Conley said. “Tennessee is on the verge of a tough week.
“There is a tremendous amount of pressure on Tennessee. To me, there is more pressure on Tennessee Tuesday than Kentucky. But there is a lot on Kentucky, too. They (Kentucky) have lost four conference games. That’s not acceptable in Lexington.”
Remember Conley questioned UK’s lack of depth early in the season and wondered what would happen if center Enes Kanter was not allowed to play. Obviously, Kanter was banned from playing by the NCAA, leaving UK with a six-player rotation most of the season.
“I thought they were still good enough to win the league, but I did worry about the stamina to get through a season,” Conley said. “Their first six players are solid and really, really good. But it’s hard to win and go a whole season with just six players.
“In close games, it can be one of a hundred circumstances that turn the game. I will promise you Cal’s kids are playing as hard as they can play. They know what to expect.”
Conley knows Florida has had to go to overtime to win twice and also narrowly beat UK. He watched
Alabama go the final nine minutes without a field goal Saturday - and still win at Tennessee. That’s why he thinks both teams will lose games the second half of league play.
“When all is said and done, I think the conference champion will have four losses even though Alabama’s schedule is very favorable,” Conley said. “Kentucky is not out of it, but they have to beat Tennessee. This is one of those games you just have to have and if Kentucky does win, then they have a chance to play themselves back into the race.”