Which of the Wildcats' final eight opponents have what it takes to knock off Big Blue?
Kentucky isn’t the only team chasing history in the SEC.
The Wildcats took another team’s best shot Saturday in a 67-61 win over Florida, but as has been the case in close calls all season, Kentucky continued its march to an undefeated regular season and more.
That Florida gave Kentucky a game is little surprise to John Calipari, who has come to expect that every team is looking for its signature moment of the season when it faces the Wildcats.
A game against Kentucky is a game to end the streak, a chance to be the ultimate spoiler.
“There will be games where players play out of their minds,” Calipari said. “After the game, Billy (Donovan) said it was the best game by far they’ve played all year. ... That’s every game we play.”
Ironically, Kentucky was in this spot less than a year ago, knocking off a 35-0 Wichita State team in the NCAA Tournament. The end of the Shockers’ bid at 40-0 was only the start of the run for Kentucky. The only interruption between the NCAA Tournament a year ago and today was a loss in the title game to UConn.
On paper, Kentucky will be favored in every game — SEC or otherwise — until a potential Final Four, but a pristine record is far more fragile in reality than it is on paper.
KenPom.com gives Kentucky at least an 84 percent chance to beat each individual opponent during the final eight games. The same projection, however, predicts a 30-1 record at the end of the regular season and a 56.7 percent chance to go undefeated.
In other words, Kentucky will be a heavy favorite in each game to finish the season, but the chances of the Wildcats going 8-0 in totality is not quite as certain.
So when might that mystery loss occur? Here’s a look at Kentucky’s final eight opponents and if they might have what it takes to make history against the Wildcats.
Feb. 10: at LSU
LSU may have the most pro potential of SEC teams not named Kentucky, and the Tigers get UK in Baton Rouge only three days after a close call in Gainesville. That’s roughly 10 hours on a plane between Saturday and tipoff at LSU on Tuesday, plus two raucous atmospheres. LSU is one of the few SEC teams that may be able to match up against Kentucky’s size with 6-foot-10 Jarell Martin and 6-8 Jordan Mickey. Beyond the forwards, LSU also has a 6-6 emerging guard in Tim Quarterman (though he doesn’t have the bulk of the Harrisons). If point guard Josh Gray can play under control and Keith Hornsby is knocking down shots, LSU could give Kentucky fits.
Will Kentucky lose this game? Maybe
Feb. 14: South Carolina
One of Kentucky’s closest calls this season came in double overtime against Texas A&M. The Aggies — who are second in SEC play in 2-point defense — held Kentucky to 9-of-36 from inside the 3-point line. South Carolina doesn’t have the size and length Texas A&M does, but the Gamecocks nonetheless have a strong interior defense, holding opponents to 41.9 percent shooting from 2. There's also some history here. South Carolina defeated Kentucky in Columbia last season and took out a John Wall-led team in 2010.
Will Kentucky lose this game? Nope
Feb. 17: at Tennessee
Tennessee will be an interesting matchup, particularly for Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison. The Volunteers lead the SEC in defensive turnover rate and steal rate in conference games, and Harrison, while improved this season, is as streaky as they come. Just in the last week, he played his best game of the year against Georgia (23 points, seven assists, one turnover) and then one of his worst against Florida (one point, two assists, three turnovers). Playing against Tennessee will require patience against the zone and patience against a team that’s averaging the fewest possessions per game in the SEC (62.9). Kentucky already had some difficulty with the next two slowest-tempo teams in the league, Vanderbilt and Florida.
Will Kentucky lose this game? It’s plausible
Feb. 21: Auburn
No team shoots more 3-pointers than Auburn at 20.7 per game. The problem is the Tigers make only 33.4 percent of them, ranking eighth in the SEC. Maybe Auburn will have a ridiculous day from the 3-point line as Ole Miss did on Jan. 6 when the Rebels went 9-of-17 in an 89-86 overtime loss. That is the only chance Auburn has to end a streak of its own: Auburn hasn’t defeated Kentucky since 2000 and hasn’t defeated Kentucky in Lexington since 1988.
Will Kentucky lose this game? Only in football
Feb. 25: at Mississippi State
This is as good a time as any to mention that Kentucky hasn’t been immune to the injury bug. The Wildcats haven’t had Alex Poythress, who went down with a torn ACL, since December. Forward Trey Lyles (7.5 points, 5.3 rebounds) has missed the last three games with an illness, leaving Kentucky’s guards to pick up some of the rebounding slack. Lyles probably will be healthy in time for this particular game, but the point is that no team makes it to March completely healthy
Will Kentucky lose this game? Nope
Feb. 28: Arkansas
Other than Florida, Arkansas is the only SEC team to consistently give Kentucky trouble during the last few years. The Razorbacks have won four of the last five meetings, including the last three. This season, Arkansas has one elite big man, Bobby Portis, who could go toe-to-toe with Kentucky’s front. He’ll be outnumbered, but he alone is still a better matchup than most. The question is what kind of game the streaky Michael Qualls will have. Arkansas is the highest-scoring team in the SEC, at least according to raw numbers, but the Hogs rank third in offensive efficiency.
Will Kentucky lose this game? In Fayetteville, maybe, but probably not in Lexington
March 3: at Georgia
The final scoresheet shows an 11-point Kentucky win Feb. 3, but Georgia had this to within five points with two minutes to go. In Lexington. Without Marcus Thornton. All of that is notable. In the return trip, Kentucky will visit Athens to face a veteran Georgia team that, presumably, will have its leading scorer and rebounder.
Will Kentucky lose this game? We’re still picking Kentucky, but this is the one we like
March 7: Florida
Kentucky caught Florida right after the Gators played their worst game of the season in a loss to Vanderbilt. Maybe the Wildcats underestimated Florida. Maybe Billy Donovan finally woke up his team in time for Kentucky. The Wildcats still managed to escape an off game due to near-perfect free throw shooting and the continued emergence of Karl-Anthony Towns. Florida played long stretches without Michael Frazier, but the Gators also had plenty go their way, too.
Will Kentucky lose this game? No