Is Kentucky Destroying SEC Basketball?
In this year’s SEC tournament, nobody else looked even close to the Wildcats
Yesterday, I watched the Alabama vs Kentucky semifinal game in the SEC conference tournament. It was a good game from start to finish, punctuated by one or two moments where Alabama drew close enough to make UK fans sweat. The Wildcats eventually won, 79–74, beating a Crimson Tide squad that played about as well as anyone could have expected.
During the game though, I kept coming back to the undeniable edge that Kentucky has over everyone else in the conference in terms of talent and recruiting. It’s an edge that allows this team to withstand spirited assaults from teams like Georgia, Alabama, and (on Sunday) Arkansas. And ultimately, I think it’s worth asking whether or not Kentucky’s dominance is holding the rest of the SEC back.
There are many examples to turn to in order to evaluate this question, but I’ll keep it focused on yesterday’s semifinal matchup with Alabama. During this game, Alabama relied heavily on Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key to challenge Kentucky. This is a fine strategy, since these two players have been some of their most reliable. The Tide also got nice contributions from Avery Johnson Jr. and Corban Collins, relying on a team approach that they have used all year. These are all fine players, individuals who helped Alabama finish the year with a winning record and get a few rounds deep in the conference tournament.
However, Kentucky’s talent stymied everything Alabama tried to do yesterday. No matter how well Avery Johnson coached his team, and no matter what strategies the Tide rolled out, the talent disparity between the two teams is enormous. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are two of the best collegiate players in the country. It was obvious just from this game alone. Ingram made some great plays throughout the game, but Fox matched him essentially shot-for-shot, and looked much more confident and talented doing so. Every shot Ingram made looked like a last-ditch effort, while Fox’s baskets looked like much more calculated, confident attempts.
And realities like these, roughly speaking, are evident throughout the rest of the SEC tournament field as well. Georgia and Arkansas have both turned in nice seasons (Arkansas much more so), but Kentucky was just better. This isn’t some new observation — everyone knows that UK has owned the SEC for a while now — but it’s still important to recognize.
As long as the Wildcats continue to recruit the top talent in the country, it’s difficult to see a path toward some other team taking the SEC crown. Having the best player on the court is the single most improtant step toward succeeding in the game of basketball at all levels, and it’s a step that Kentucky has nearly everyone else beat at. Even when the team’s best players leave after this first years, John Calipari can restock almost immediately.
SEC basketball is improving. The conference should put more teams in the NCAA tournament this year, and more and more universities are devoting resources to hiring top-level coaches. Alabama, for example, has an elite recruiting class lined up for next year. The next time the Crimson Tide meet Kentucky, the talent disparity won’t be nearly as large.
But for now, Kentucky is still the best team, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The Wildcats have one of the best coaches in the country, and consistently one of the most talented teams. And they’re miles ahead of the rest of the SEC.