6:10:36 UK WBB vs. Alabama at Willy T

The Wildcats warm up before the University of Kentucky vs. Alabama women's basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 81-68. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

With the regular season dwindling down to the final days. Kentucky’s treacherous road to an SEC title is becoming clearer.

The Cats did themselves no favors on Sunday afternoon, dropping just their second home game of the year, 73-69 at the hands of Ole Miss. After defeating No. 17 Georgia on Thursday night, Kentucky was primed for the vaunted double-bye in this week’s SEC Tournament. The victory versus the Bulldogs vaulted them into fourth place in the conference standings with only the Rebel contest on Senior Day to play. But that loss, coupled with a Georgia win at Florida, pushed them back into the five slot.

Generally speaking, there isn’t a major difference between the four and five seeds. Yes, it means only a single bye instead of two, but a Kentucky win against the winner of the No. 12 vs. No. 13 game (Florida vs. Auburn) will see them in the same position they likely would have been in if they had claimed the four: facing Georgia in the quarterfinals. Instead of being the designated home team in white though, they’ll be in blue.

Kentucky’s home dominance (11-2) has masked some of its woes, which have been more pronounced on the road. Despite their SEC standings position, the Cats were merely average outside of the Bluegrass, going 4-4. Each of their four losses, including the one to Ole Miss, came by at least 12 points. This brings a sense of pessimism ahead of the conference get-together in Greenville, South Carolina.

Kentucky seems to have a solid chance at a semifinal appearance, but further advancement is murky at best. Each of the current top three tournament seeds (Texas A&M, South Carolina and Tennessee) beaten Kentucky by 17 or more in their regular season meetings outside of Lexington.

The Aggies, the No. 1 seed for the tournament, were a surprise juggernaut this year. They followed up their 22-8 showing in 2020 with a spectacular 22-1 campaign this year, and claimed their first SEC regular-season title by knocking off South Carolina 65-57 on Sunday. Texas A&M has been led by Aaliyah Wilson and N’Dea Jones throughout their dominant season, one that’s lone blemish came at LSU on Jan. 14. Kentucky traveled to College Station on Jan. 7, falling 77-60 as Jones went for 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Wilson had 18 points. If they were to face Texas A&M in Greenville, a focus on controlling the boards needs to be emphasized if they want to have a chance to come out on top.

Greenville’s No. 2 seed, South Carolina, spent multiple weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Gamecocks have beaten Kentucky twice those season, both times by capitalizing on UK’s slow second halves.                

But South Carolina lost to perennial powerhouse UCONN, Tennessee and the shocking Aggies. Ending the regular season at 19-4 is considered disappointing in Dawn Staley’s neck of the woods, but her squad remains as big a threat as any to cut down the nets in both Greenville and San Antonio.

The Gamecocks recently outclassed the Cats 76-55 in Columbia, but only defeated Kentucky 75-70 when the two faced off on Jan. 10 at Memorial Coliseum. Kentucky shot just 15% from three-point range in that one but showed it can compete with the country’s best. Remembering the game, even though it ended in defeat, should bode well for the Cats’ overall confidence.

In its first matchup with Tennessee, Kentucky suffered through a brutal 70-53 loss in Knoxville. The team was putrid from the field, hitting at only a 28% rate from the field. Rhyne Howard and Chasity Patterson went for a combined 9-of-31 during the loss.

The rematch in Lexington was a much different story. The Cats returned the favor at Rupp Arena with a big 15-point victory, in which they held the Lady Vols to 35% shooting. Jazmine Massengill shined versus her former squad that night, dropping 11 points, grabbing seven rebounds while dishing out six assists. Barring a disastrous shooting performance, the Cats have demonstrated the ability handle Rae Burrell and company.

Kentucky possesses the talent required to bring home the conference title. That much is evident, even with the road issues. But there are two questions that need to be answered:

-  Did the Georgia contest mark the turning of the tide in terms of road performance, especially when playing top teams?

-   Can the Cats avoid hemorrhaging points in the paint long enough to allow their guards to force turnovers and offense to build/hang onto a lead?

If the answer to both of those is “yes”, the possibility of bearing witness to the program’s first SEC Tournament championship is much higher than it otherwise would be. Clearly separated as one of the conference’s top teams, the Wildcats should be able to enter the tournament confident in their ability to win no matter who they match up against.