Over the past 8 seasons of John Calipari’s time here at UK, the Big Blue Nation has become very accustomed to seeing Kentucky essentially trample over the rest of the SEC. Not counting this year, UK has won 4 of the last 7 SEC Championships and boasts a 95-25 overall record over their opponents, a winning clip of 79%. Also within that time, their average margin of victory over their opponents is 10 points per game. They’ve averaged 13.8 wins in the conference, and just 3.6 losses.
That’s a pretty impressive resume. Now, let’s look at this year.
Kentucky is 14-2 thus far in the SEC after last Saturday’s win over No. 13 Florida. Their average margin of victory is actually pretty impressive, as they’ve defeated their opponents by roughly 11.9 points per game this season. However, that average is due in large part to dominating wins over a struggling Texas A&M squad at home and impressive home wins against South Carolina and Arkansas. For the most part, with the exception of a couple of games, Kentucky’s games outside of that have been nail-biters. Out of the 16 games that UK has played in the SEC this year, 8 of them have been decided by single digits. Does this mean that Kentucky is struggling this year, or that the SEC is simply getting better? Some people believe UK is to blame. And while Kentucky has had their struggles this year, believe it or not, the SEC is actually greatly improving.
Tennessee (15-13, 7-8 SEC)
Many people reacted negatively to Kentucky’s two-point loss at Tennessee in late January. However, believe it or not, contrary to what their record says, this UT team is actually pretty talented. The Volunteers have three players averaging in double figures, and took Wisconsin, Oregon and North Carolina, all very highly-ranked opponents in the AP poll, down to the wire. They lost to Wisconsin and North Carolina by a combined 4 points, and took Oregon to overtime where they lost by just 4. They also defeated Kansas State, a very good team from the Big 12, in the SEC/Big 12 challenge. Let’s not forget that Rick Barnes is in just his second year with the Volunteers, a coach who holds a record of 634-346 as a head coach.
South Carolina (21-8, 11-5 SEC)
The Gamecocks have gathered a pretty impressive resume this season, defeating both Michigan and Syracuse in their non-conference schedule. They also handed Florida its first loss in the SEC this year. Head coach Frank Martin is no stranger to success either, as he’s transformed the program into a formidable threat to any team, acquiring 46 wins and only 17 losses in the past two seasons alone. Martin’s squad has lost 4 of their last 6 games, but look for the Gamecocks to make a splash in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Georgia (17-12, 8-8 SEC)
The Bulldogs have had a very rough year but not for lack of talent. They’ve seen close games against the likes of Kansas and Marquette, as well as tight games at home and away against South Carolina. They also took Florida down to the wire in Gainesville in a 76-80 overtime loss against the Gators. We’ve obviously seen how close they’ve come in both games they’ve played against the Cats as well. Had Georgia come out on top in some of these close games, we’d be looking at a very different set of rankings in the SEC right now.
Florida (23-6, 13-3 SEC)
The BBN is no stranger to the fact that Florida has been perhaps UK’s biggest rival in the SEC for years. Since 2014 though, the Gators have struggled, especially after Billy Donovan’s departure to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015. However, current coach Mike White has seemed to turn things around. Last season Florida cumulated a record of 25-15, and an SEC record of 9-9, good for 8th in the SEC. This season, though, Florida boasts an SEC record of 13-3, sitting at 2nd currently in the standings. Mike White’s squad is also back in the AP Top-25 at No. 12, with impressive wins over Seton Hall and Miami in the non-conference, and home wins against Kentucky and South Carolina. Last Saturday’s matchup between the Cats and Gators went to Kentucky, but make no mistake, Florida is very much a contender for both the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
So what does all this matter? Well, first of all, we’re beginning to see a little less of a disparity between Kentucky and the rest of the SEC. As coach Cal has said many times, every game UK plays is an absolute war, and even some of these teams that don’t necessarily have the best record challenge the Cats night in and night out. Secondly, the SEC is finally getting a little more respect nationally. In ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lundardi’s most recent projected bracket, five SEC teams are currently in the field, with Georgia sitting in the “First Four Out” and Tennessee in the “Next Four Out”. It’s also worth noting that the SEC tied the Big 12 in this year’s SEC/Big 12 challenge, both winning five games apiece. And that is with Kentucky having lost a home game against Kansas. So had UK won the game, the SEC actually would have won the challenge. All this to say, this Kentucky team is by no means an inferior team because of some close games against unranked teams in the SEC. Rather, it just means the league is improving. And that is a great thing to see.