Cats in good mindset after setback to Vols, look ahead to NCAA tourney

Published 10:06 am Sunday, March 13, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. (KT) — Kentucky won’t know its next postseason destination until Sunday, but the Wildcats are in a good frame of mind after splitting two games in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

The No. 5 Wildcats (26-7) defeated Vanderbilt in the tournament quarterfinals before dropping a 69-62 loss to Tennessee Saturday in the semifinals. Following the loss to the Volunteers, Kentucky players were in a good frame of mind and looking forward to the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats are projected to be a No. 2 seed and will be making their first appearance in the Big Dance in two years. The 2020 event was canceled because of the pandemic and Kentucky failed to make the field last year after finishing with a 9-16 record.

“We’re still in great spirits,” Kentucky junior forward Keion Brooks said after the loss to the Volunteers. “(We’re) looking forward to what we got coming up next week. We were really, really happy with the way we continued to fight. We could have gave up, and we still pushed it, and still had a chance to win the game, so it’s a tough loss. We hate to lose, but we’re still in good spirits moving forward.”

Kentucky forward and leading scorer and rebounder Oscar Tshiebwe agreed.

“I think we just have to stay focused and locked in, be ready for the next tournament,” he said. “I’m pretty confident with my teammates, with everything. This was kind of an off day for us. We didn’t really make a shot. We still have our confidence, and we’re going to be ready next week.”

Like many analysts, Kentucky coach John Calipari thinks the Wildcats will be a No. 2 seed when the brackets for the 68-team field are revealed Sunday night.

“(We will) probably be a two, maybe a three,” he said. “Who knows? I’m not in the room, but we’ll see. My guess is it will be a very hard path because it always is.”

The Kentucky coach added that he thinks Auburn, which lost to Texas A&M in the conference quarterfinals on Friday, remains on the “one seed line” despite the early exit from the tourney.

“You know what, Tennessee has played so well, but they say they (selection committee) don’t do that anymore — your last 10 (games). They look at your body of work, you know, who you beat, your quad ones and all the other stuff they go with. I just wish they did some eye test, like watch. Forget about numbers. Do you know basketball? Watch the games.

“Tennessee, could they be a one? I don’t know. What have they — I haven’t — if you know me, I’m not seeing it, reading it, hearing about. I don’t really care. So our people were saying, hey, we have a chance at a one. I’m just trying to win a ballgame. So what has Tennessee been? What has their seed line been? Could they move to a one? Maybe. If they’re saying we were a one, they beat us (with us going) 2 for 20 (from 3-point range) and big guy (Tshiebwe) out in the first half and some other stuff, but they beat us. And Auburn has had a great year.”

The league will likely land six teams — Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU and Alabama — in the field, but Calipari thinks more should be given consideration.

“This league has done some good stuff, and now let’s see what happens in the postseason,” he said. “I’m hoping seven, maybe eight teams get in. And if that’s the case, the way you judge a league is what’s their record in the NCAA tournament? If half your teams are three-quarters losing the first game, it kind of tells you that maybe you weren’t what everybody said. I have a lot of confidence in these teams.”

Keith Taylor is the sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytodaycom and via Twitter at keithtaylor21.