NASHVILLE — The defending SEC tournament champions have a short route to winning back-to-back conference titles: Win Friday. Win Saturday. Win Sunday.
Kentucky, the No. 2 seed, will face 10th-seeded Alabama to kick its postseason off at Bridgestone Arena (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
It’s a good matchup for the Wildcats on paper; Kentucky defeated Alabama twice during the regular season, and the Crimson Tide went just 8-10 in conference play. But there’s one big advantage for the underdog.
“The hard thing becomes that they’ve played and they’ve got momentum and you’re walking in not knowing, and you had to lay around all day,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Thursday afternoon. “The hardest game is the first game. After that you can still lose but the hardest game is playing that first one when they have already played a game.”
Alabama put together a strong performance in its 81-73 win over Ole Miss on Thursday, with four different players scoring 15 or more points.
Afterwards, the Tide promised they’re a different squad than the one that fell to the Wildcats twice.
“We’re a better team, and we’ve also matured,” Alabama star Retin Obasohan said. “With that comes just having the experience playing in this league. So Kentucky’s a good team, and they do what they do, but at the same time, I got complete faith in our coaching staff and teammates that we have more than enough to go out there and give them our best shot.”
But with the recent emergence of 5-star freshman Skal Labissiere, Kentucky isn’t the same team, either.
Calipari’s bunch has won three of its past four games, including a blowout of LSU and star freshman Ben Simmons to cap off the regular season last weekend.
“I’m feeling comfortable about my team,” Calipari said. “I like that they’re being empowered. My message will be real simple for them and that’s one, be the best version of you. Just know what that looks like. We know it. We’ve defined it.”
Path to the title
- Friday vs. Alabama (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
- Saturday vs. South Carolina/Georgia (3:30-4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
- Sunday vs. Texas A&M/LSU/Tennessee/Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)
Projected starting lineup
- Tyler Ulis (point guard) [16.6 points / 3.3 rebounds / 7.4 assists / 1.4 steals / 0.1 blocks]
- Jamal Murray (shooting guard) [20.0 / 5.1 / 2.2 / 1.0 / 0.3]
- Isaiah Briscoe (guard/forward) [9.7 / 5.2 / 3.1 / 1.0 / 0.1]
- Alex Poythress (forward) [10.0 / 6.2 / 0.4 / 0.5 / 0.7]
- Skal Labissiere (forward/center) [6.8 / 3.2 / 0.3 / 0.3 / 1.6]
Off the bench
- Marcus Lee (forward/center) [6.8 / 6.5 / 0.3 / 0.3 / 1.7]
- Derek Willis (forward) [7.9 / 3.9 / 0.4 / 0.7 / 0.6]
- Dominique Hawkins (guard) [2.2 / 0.6 / 0.5 / 0.2 / 0.1]
- Isaac Humphries (center) [2.3 / 2.8 / 0.1 / 0.1 / 0.8]
- Charles Matthews (guard) [1.9 / 1.7 / 0.4 / 0.4 / 0.1]
Numbers to know
- 1983: The last time Alabama defeated Kentucky in the SEC tournament.
- 2013: The last time Alabama advanced to the tournament semifinals, which the Crimson Tide can do with a win over Kentucky on Friday. That same year, Vanderbilt — a No. 10 seed — upset No. 2 seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals.
- 17: Second-half points for Obasohan on Thursday. The Alabama guard got into foul trouble against Ole Miss but came alive after coach Avery Johnson took him “to the streets” at halftime.
- 40.8: Combined scoring average for Ulis and Murray in conference play, best in the nation.
- 356: Career assists for Ulis, who needs nine more to pass Saul Smith for 10th all-time at Kentucky.
- Alabama guard Riley Norris on Friday’s matchup: “We’re starting to play a lot better. I know Kentucky is a really great team, give them all the respect. We’re going to go in and scout and do the best we can. Our coaching staff always prepares us really well. So we’re just going to go in and do our best tomorrow night.”
- Alabama coach Avery Johnson on Ulis: “We’ve got to try to stay in front of him, contain him, and we can’t afford for him to have a double-double. Got to try to take something away, which is easier said than done.”
- Johnson on the Kentucky-friendly crowd: “We know what we’re dealing with. We feel we’re a little bit different team now. At least we played in a situation where they had a pretty large home crowd. They’ll have the same thing tomorrow from what I understand. So at least my guys won’t get shocked by what they’re going to see with their fans tomorrow.”
- Calipari on the Wildcats’ health: “What we have for the first time and no one is really talked about it is I have a full team. Now you’ve got Dom (Hawkins) healthy. You’ve got Derek (Willis) healthy. You’ve got Alex (Poythress) healthy. We haven’t had that all year, and so we’re coming together at the right time of the year.”
- Calipari on Kentucky’s potential NCAA tournament seed: “I don’t know what our seed is. I have no idea what they’re thinking. I’ve heard three, four, five. This is one of those years where normally I’d say seed matters because the numbers show you that the higher your seed the better your chances are of winning. This may be one of those years that it’s crazy. You could have an eight or a nine seed in the Final Four. Maybe a couple. You could have an 11 seed. It’s just one of those crazy years.”