Kentucky could be a great team. One of the best in years.
This season’s Wildcats could be a squad we’re referencing decades from now.
It’s too early to know for sure. But they’re one of two teams in NCAA history to feature nine McDonald’s All-Americans. My colleague, Eamonn Brennan, recently noted that this is probably the best defensive unit since the turn of millennium, which is quite confounding when considering that the Anthony Davis-led Wildcats seemed to block and stop everything during their 2011-12 national title run.
Greatness, however, isn’t achieved in a vacuum. The best need good competition.
Leonard needed Hagler. Bird needed Magic. Brandy needed Monica.
Competing against the best is how they proved their greatness. And the SEC won’t help Kentucky make its case, although John Calipari’s crew is clearly a special group that’s favored to win the national title.
On Tuesday night, Alabama nearly ruined Wichita State’s 22-game (now 23-game) home winning streak. Jimmie Taylor was a monster (3 blocks), and Levi Randolph (13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists) was the best player on the floor for the bulk of the matchup.
But Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker shook off a rough start to lead Wichita State on a late 13-1 run in the final 5:34 that sealed the 53-52 win. Also, Alabama's late-game execution could use some work. Alabama, down one in the final seconds and coming out of a time out, drew up a play for Rodney Cooper, a 45 percent shooter from the arc who had missed his previous two attempts. It didn't fall.
Still, the Crimson Tide showed up on the road in one of the nation’s toughest venues in a game against a top-15 team. Anthony Grant’s crew blew a late lead, but if it plays that way the rest of the season, Bama could finish in the SEC’s top tier.
But what does that even mean? These days, not very much.
ESPN released its initial BPI standings on Tuesday.
Kentucky, as expected, is ranked first.
No other SEC squad cracked the top 20. South Carolina, which has won three in a row, was No. 21. Arkansas and Florida were 30th and 36th, respectively.
There are three more months for teams to emerge, but the initial standings are confirmation that Kentucky is the only SEC team with a bona fide, albeit early, NCAA tourney résumé. The rest of the league has a lot of work to do.
That's why Bama’s loss to Wichita State was significant. Kentucky can’t provide the only quality win in the conference. That’s not going to help the league fulfill Bruce Pearl’s prediction of five SEC teams in the Big Dance. Kentucky could two-step alone in the postseason, especially if it’s the only legit résumé-builder in the conference.
Arkansas and Florida have been respectable and are improving. South Carolina is growing. LSU’s current groove includes a recent win over West Virginia.
Maybe things will get better and Kentucky will find a nemesis. That’d be good the Wildcats, who could use a battle or two before March Madness begins.
Those SEC losses last season helped Kentucky prep for the fights they won during the NCAA tourney. Plus, it’s not fun to see an elite team run through conference play without any drama.
The 2004-05 North Carolina Tar Heels won a title, but lost battles to Chris Paul's Wake Forest team and J.J. Redick's Duke squad along the way. Florida went 10-6 in the SEC before it won the first of back-to-back national titles in 2006. Tom Izzo’s Michigan State squad won the championship in 2000 but only after losing three Big Ten games, including a pair of wars with Indiana and hard-fought battles with Wisconsin.
It’s better that way.
In college basketball, the best teams don’t always win the national championship. Sometimes, it’s just the hottest team.
Conference play is the only true gauntlet in the sport. That’s why Kansas, which has won or shared 10 consecutive Big 12 championships, has earned so much respect despite winning just one national title in that stretch.
Maybe the SEC will surprise us and produce a few teams that can challenge Kentucky, even if it’s just for a night.
That “maybe,” however, seems like a stretch right now.
Kentucky is a stellar representative for the SEC on the national stage. But the Wildcats are standing up there all alone right now.