LEXINGTON, Ky. — Paul Finebaum will be in Lexington this weekend as SEC Network’s SEC Nation show will be broadcast at 10 a.m. ET in front of the William T. Young Library before Kentucky’s 7:30 p.m. matchup against Mississippi State.
We caught up with Finebaum, who was in Nashville for SEC basketball media days, to get his take on the Wildcats, Kentucky’s unshakeable “basketball school” label and how he sees Saturday’s game against the Bulldogs playing out.
Here’s the conversation:
Q: After a rough start but now back to .500, how do you assess Kentucky and where Mark Stoops has the program headed?
Finebaum: I really like where it is right now, but there really isn’t much room for error. Four or five weeks ago there was really a very negative narrative in association with coach Stoops. That bothered me because I’ve always liked him. He’s always been very gracious. I’ve always believed that he was going to get this thing turned around. Even going into the season, but it was such a disastrous start, you had to start wondering. I’ve really liked what he’s done, and again, it’s baby steps, but I think a win Saturday against Mississippi State puts Kentucky closer to a bowl game, which I think is essential. I hear that from Kentucky fans and I hear it from people around college football. At some point you have to get to a bowl. It may not sound like a lot at some schools, but at Kentucky, I think it’s everything.
Q: Is 6-6 a reasonable expectation for Kentucky fans or should they expect more from the program? Is making a bowl game the ceiling?
Finebaum: I don’t think it is the ceiling. I’m not there much, but I’ll never forget sitting there last October interviewing coach and President Capilouto, someone I’ve known for a long time from my days in Birmingham. I saw a commitment to this program that was unmatched in relation to where it is and what it represents. The facilities are superb and the additions are exactly what you need. I don’t know why Kentucky can’t be an 8-4 team, be competitive occasionally for a major upset. I’ve seen it before, and again, I’m going pretty far back, but I have seen it over time and I think it’s selling the program short by thinking it’s not possible. When you’re around college football you see a lot of things that you never would’ve expected to see. Last year, you had Temple hosting a (ESPN College) GameDay and being in the national conversation. You’ve seen various schools pop up. Washington I know has their history, but you hire the right person and get momentum, I mean even in the SEC. Look at Ole Miss. Mississippi State, two years ago on this date, when the Bulldogs came to Kentucky they were No. 1 in the country. I remember being up there. So, I think you need a little bit of luck, but I don’t think it’s that far out of whack. Duke, North Carolina, these are mirror images of Kentucky in the basketball universe and Duke played for the ACC Championship two years ago and North Carolina played for the ACC Championship last year.
Q: To that point, is Kentucky at a disadvantage in football when, unlike the other SEC schools, football isn’t the most popular sport? Does the basketball program hurt what the football program can be?
Finebaum: We go someplace every Friday. We sit usually with the basketball coach on our set. Every single one of them with an exception or two talk about the coalescing of basketball and football and how; I was in College Station a few weeks ago and Billy Kennedy talks about embracing football. Mark Fox three weeks ago in Athens, Mike Anderson in Fayetteville. And I really think it’s critical. And listen, I have great admiration for Cal. I don’t expect him to stop what he’s doing to try and help the football program, but I think he does. Nick Saban helps the basketball program. Avery Johnson has told me that countless times. He’s modeled himself after Saban. I think it can work together. To me, if you’re a football recruit, Kentucky basketball would be a major attraction. I don’t doubt it’s going on here, maybe you don’t hear about it as much, maybe you don’t think about it as much, but we’re coming in here tomorrow and there’s talk about the Blue and White game. I’ve read it all. I went to school at a time where basketball was more important than football. When we camped out for Kentucky tickets and football tickets were going wanting. I just think it can be done. And I say that because I’ve seen it done at Kentucky. It’d be one thing if the administration doesn’t support it, but the administration does support it.
Q: How do you see Saturday’s game against Mississippi State playing out?
Finebaum: Yeah, I like Kentucky to win and I think it’s a must-win. I’ll never forget last year I felt that way about the Auburn game. It was a Thursday night game. It was a great opportunity. I know Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt later in the year. But to me that was such a big blow. I think this would be an equally big blow. Mississippi State is a team in, it’s spinning out of control right now. Yeah, I know how well they played against BYU, but they still lost. And they looked miserable against Auburn. I think it is a must-win. It’s important. It’s more important because of what’s going on contemporaneously, and that’s basketball. Listen, I live in North Carolina, I don’t live in Kentucky. But I do understand what the calendar says. To keep people engaged you have to win right now. You can’t lose a game like this and have people believe you’re going to beat Tennessee and beat other schools on the schedule. Yeah, it’s a, I don’t want to say it’s a defining game for Mark Stoops. I think that’s overstatement. I think he has been able to stabilize it. But I will say this, I think it would be a big setback. It would be a major setback if the Cats lost.