By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The same seems to have been proven true in SEC Basketball. Each year over the past three seasons the competitive level of SEC Basketball has improved. The quality of play has improved. The coaching ability has improved across the board. The continued improvement in coaching has also attracted a greater number of talented players at each member school. No longer is the SEC a two or three team league that it was over the past decade.
With all the influx of coaching and player talent the “tide” has been rising. And one of the major beneficiaries of this “rising tide” is the University of Kentucky. At first glance it may not seem beneficial to have more teams in the SEC that can beat UK on any given night – home or away – but it has actually been a big benefit. Here’s why.
In 2016 the SEC only had three teams make the NCAA Tournament field. In 2017 the SEC presence in the tournament was expanded to five teams. For the current tournament the SEC had eight teams in the field of 68. Big improvements each year. Why is that important for UK?
In the 2017-2018 season UK played 34 games prior to reaching the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed. Their record was 24-10. Not a bad record but not outstanding either. Their SEC regular season record was 10-8 with a fourth place finish. Not what most fans would have hoped for or expected with the No. 2 recruiting class coming into the season.
Under Tubby Smith in 2006 Kentucky finished sixth with a 9-7 SEC record and received an 8-seed. They lost in the Round of 32 to Connecticut. In 2007 under Tubby Smith UK once again finished with a 9-7 SEC record in fourth place, received an 8-seed and lost in the Round of 32 to Kansas. In 2009 UK – under Coach Billy Gillespie – finished 8-8 for seventh place in the SEC. They went on to lose in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
So why dredge up UK Basketball ancient history? Especially bad history. Because this year’s team also had a suspect record in the SEC – 10-8. This year’s team also finished fourth in the SEC. But this year’s team received a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Why? Because of the big difference between the quality of this team and those three other teams of the past. Better talent was developed by coaching and competition. The “rising tide.”
Generally during those seasons in 2006, 2007 and 2009 Kentucky played four to five games against NCAA-caliber teams during their out-of-conference schedule and then four to six games against SEC teams that ended up in the NCAA Tournament. That was a total of eight to ten games against NCAA-level completion. This year, as in past years, UK played four teams out-of-conference that made the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament.