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UK plays Mississippi State in SEC Tournament on Thursday; Cats enter postseason with 9-15 record

By Eric Lindsey
University of Kentucky

Kentucky will play Mississippi State on Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament after finishing the season 8-9 in league play. Game time is set for noon ET (11 a.m. CT) at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

UK locked up the No. 8 seed on Saturday with an impressive 92-64 victory over South Carolina and Mississippi State’s loss to Auburn. The Bulldogs will be the No. 9 seed.

The winner of the UK-MSU matchup will get top-seeded Alabama on Friday at noon ET.

Olivier Sarr is looking to help UK win the SEC Tournament championship this week and earn an NCAA berth. (Photo by Tammie Brown, Kentucky Today)

Kentucky earned a bye in the tournament but will begin its SEC Tournament run prior to the quarterfinals for the first time since the tournament expanded in 2013. Despite its SEC Tournament dominance, Kentucky has not won four games in the league tourney to win the event since 1952.

The Wildcats will need to do exactly that after finishing the season 9-15 overall. UK finished strong by winning four of its last six games, including victories at then No. 19/20 Tennessee and the 28-point win Saturday vs. South Carolina, Kentucky’s largest margin of victory in league play in more than two seasons and its second-biggest win of 2020-21.

“It’s never too late,” Davion Mintz said of UK’s chances of making a run in the SEC Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament. “I’ve got faith. God is real and things happen for a reason. If we have a chance to go out there and play for 40 minutes, it’s never too late. We’ll see next week.”

Kentucky is seeking its seventh SEC Tournament championship under John Calipari and 32nd overall. UK will need three wins to advance to its ninth SEC Tournament title game in the last 12 seasons, which includes the cancellation of last season’s tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tournament could be wide open after a highly competitive and tightly bunched regular season among the league’s teams. After placing 15 teams in the NCAA Tournament in the previous two eligible seasons, second-most in the nation, the league has a handful of teams vying for at-large berths heading into the conference finale.

Kentucky leads the league with 31 SEC Tournament titles, more than the rest of the league combined (28). The Wildcats are 134-26 all-time in the SEC Tournament. The 2019 loss in the semifinals – the last time a tournament was played – ended a run of four straight SEC Tournament championships and 13 straight wins in the conference tournament.

Calipari’s teams at UMass, Memphis and Kentucky have been to 19 conference championship games in his 28-year career, winning a remarkable 15 of them. Calipari is 57-12 (.826) all-time in conference tournaments, including 23-4 (.852) at UK. Calipari ranks fourth in SEC Tournament wins.

UK’s Keion Brooks dunks against Florida. (SEC photo)

“Every team I’ve coached, at the other two schools too, we were in the same position that when you look back, we have gone through the war and we have been scarred, but it prepares us,” Calipari said. “Every game we play ends up being a two-bucket game right down to the stretch. And we’re fighting with every team, and you know what, that’s what prepares you. … They are prepared, just like all the other teams here.”

The Wildcats are 8-2 all-time vs. the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament. Kentucky edged Mississippi State in Starkville earlier this season in a double-overtime thriller to start league play. The Wildcats won 78-73 behind Dontaie Allen’s career-high 23 points and seven 3-pointers. UK has won 15 straight games in the series and Mississippi State is the only team yet to beat the Wildcats in the Calipari era.

The last time Kentucky played Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament was the thrilling 75-74 overtime victory in the championship game in 2010, Calipari’s first season at UK.

If Kentucky is fortunate enough to play Alabama, it would be the fifth time in the last six seasons (the lone absence being last year’s canceled tournament) the Wildcats have faced the Crimson Tide in the SEC Tournament. UK has won all four of the previous matchups and is 17-2 vs. Alabama in the league tournament and 6-1 in the quarterfinals. Alabama, which finished the season 21-6 overall and 16-2 in league play, swept the two-game regular-season series this year.

Tennessee (4 seed), Florida (5 seed), Vanderbilt (12 seed) and Texas A&M (13 seed) are on the same side of the bracket as Kentucky.

The tournament returns to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for the sixth time in the last seven seasons (that includes last year with two games played in the opening rounds). UK has won the SEC Tournament when it is played in Nashville four times under Calipari. 

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