7:01:21 WBB vs. Tennessee

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Kyra Elzy talks to her team before the University of Kentucky vs. Tennessee women’s basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 71-56. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

After a disappointing defeat in their rematch with the Ole Miss Rebels on Senior Day, *No. 19 Kentucky is headed to the SEC Tournament on a less than positive note. While they’d love to bring home the trophy from Greenville, Kyra Elzy’s bunch have a much larger prize in mind: the first final four appearance in program history.

Unlike the men’s team, this crew will be participating in the big dance regardless of the conference tournament result. Rhyne Howard will look to cement her status as the best player in college basketball, battling alongside the likes of Aliyah Boston and Paige Bueckers for the Naismith award.

The entire women’s tournament will be played in Texas – San Antonio, Austin and Marcos – so region location is not a concern. But on which seed line will the Cats end up, and which top-tier teams may they have to vanquish to accomplish their feats? Here’s Kentucky’s resume:

Record: 16-7 (9-6), 5th in SEC

*NCAA NET: 18

Quality Wins: vs. No. 11 Indiana, vs. No. 16 Arkansas, vs. No. 20 Tennessee, at No. 17 Georgia

Bad Losses: Ole Miss (x2)

The Cats have mostly performed as expected this season, but with a couple notable exceptions: the losses to Ole Miss. The Rebels are not an awful team by any stretch – a pedestrian 10-11 during the regular season – but were just 4-9 in the SEC, meaning half their conference wins came over Kentucky.

Beating Indiana, Arkansas and Tennessee at Memorial Coliseum were nice notches on the belt, but the biggest win for the Cats came in Athens over Georgia. They were shellacked by currently-ranked teams on the road (77-60 Texas A&M, 70-53 Tennessee and 76-55 South Carolina) in 2021, and proved to the committee – and themselves – that they were capable of beating a top foe outside of Lexington with the victory.

When the committee first revealed its top-16 seeds back on Feb. 15, Kentucky cracked the list at No. 16 as the final No. 4 seed. The Hoosiers, somewhat surprisingly, came in at No. 15 overall despite the head-to-head result with the Cats, but didn’t have any defeats that compared to the Ole Miss one Kentucky suffered eleven days prior.

Due to COVID-19 postponing their LSU game, the Cats have suited up only three times since the initial placement: at South Carolina (L), at Georgia (W) and vs. Ole Miss (L). Sunday evening’s reveal had Kentucky at No. 14 overall, up two spots from its first location. But the rankings were formulated prior to UK’s loss against Ole Miss. This likely sends the Cats back down the list, possibly outside of the top-16 and onto the five line.

While the Rebel result did undo the work of the Georgia win, the upcoming conference tournament provides a potential remedy. As the No. 5 seed in Greenville, the Cats take on the winner of Wednesday’s No. 12/13 contest (Florida vs. Auburn) on Thursday. If they can avoid another upset, they would then match up with Georgia a second time. Semifinal advancement would likely offer a monumental opportunity to boost their resume: No. 1 Texas A&M.

If Kentucky is unable to rebound in its first SEC tourney battle, meaning a loss to the currently SEC-winless Tigers or currently 3-11 SEC-record Gators, it would go tumbling down the board, possibly even to a six seed pending other conference tournament performances. As long as it can make a quarterfinal appearance, the floor seems to be a No. 5 seed.

Any victories the rest of the way – assuming chalk – would be monumental. If the Cats somehow managed to win the whole enchilada, a No. 3 seed is a distinct possibility. This would set them up to have avoid a top-20 team in the Round of 32, and conquer only one top-10 squad on their way to the Final Four’s doorstep.

Regardless of the tournament they’re in, Kentucky will have to discover the ability to defend on the interior. The likes of Aliyah Boston, Shakira Austin and N’Dea Jones have shredded them in the paint at times this year. When the Cats stand tall in the paint, they don’t lose.

Kentucky’s first SEC Tournament contest is at approximately 1:30 p.m. E.T. on Thursday. The game will be televised on SEC Network.

*Rankings at time of publication for print product, which was Sunday, Feb. 28.