LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Kentucky didn’t need to beat Alabama by 18 points to reinforce its case to be a No. 1 seed with benefits for the NCAA Tournament next week.
But it didn’t hurt.
So that’s what John Calipari’s team did Friday night while dispatching Alabama, 73-55, in the Wildcats’ opening game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville.
"The bottom line is this is a skilled basketball team," Calipari told the SEC Network after the game. "You've just got to get them to defend. Their offense is good enough."
Good enough for what? Use your imagination.
Mark it down as the Wildcats’ 13th consecutive SEC Tournament victory as they pursue their fifth straight trophy in this event.
Tyler Herro played like a guy determined to follow Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the SEC Tournament Most Outstanding Player. He led the Wildcats with 20 points.
Defending Herro was a mystery to the Crimson Tide.
When Alabama crowded him, Herro accelerated and attacked the rim.
When Alabama sagged to eliminate the drive, Herro punished the Crimson Tide with his crisply efficient jump shot, making a pair of shots from distance and a pair from the left baseline.
The Wildcats improved to 26-6 and added to their credentials as a top NCAA seed.
With another win Saturday and certainly with another in the championship game Sunday, Kentucky will position itself to be the top seed in the South Regional.
That should result in first- and second-round games in Columbus, Ohio as well as path to the Sweet Sixteen at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. (If you’re making plans, the Final Four is booked for Minneapolis.)
It didn’t hurt that Atlantic Coast Conference top-seed Virginia had a 40-minute struggle with Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals and lost, 69-59.
The Wildcats certainly looked the part of a team that earned a user-friendly path in the bracket by punishing coach Avery Johnson’s team at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville.
Ten weeks after the Wildcats lost to the Crimson Tide by two points in Tuscaloosa, Kentucky doubled the score (22-11) on Alabama in the first eight minutes.
More than 15 minutes into the game, Alabama had seven field goals made and nine field goal attempts blocked.
There was more good news: Reid Travis, the Wildcats;’ rugged senior forward, returned to the court for the first time since Travis injured his right knee against Missouri on Feb. 19.
Travis did not start. He entered the game after 2 1/2 minutes. Travis finished with eight points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes. The Wildcats were +18 when Travis was on the court. Only P.J. Washington (+20) had a better number.
“It meant a lot to have him back,” Herro said on the SEC Network after the game. “We’ve missed him the last few weeks.”
The Wildcats defended with gusto. Alabama made only six three-point shots. Their overall field-goal percentage was an extremely sour 30.4 percent.
In fact, the Wildcats even earned another victory at halftime when the game clock was stopped. Keion Brooks, a 5-star recruit from Fort Wayne, Ind., made his college choice — and decided he wanted to become the next Keldon Johnson by picking the Wildcats over Indiana and Michigan State.
The Wildcats play Saturday in the semifinals. Their opponent will be Tennessee or Mississippi State. Kentucky traded home wins with the Volunteers. They beat the Bulldogs by four in their only meeting in Starkville last month.
If Kentucky advances to the championship game Sunday, the Wildcats’ opponent will be Florida or Auburn. They’re 4-0 against that pair this season. Florida upset top seed LSU Friday afternoon.
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