NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Right on cue, Kentucky’s John Calipari spent part of his postgame news conference on Saturday making the NCAA tournament case for some of the SEC’s other teams.
Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, to be specific.
Calipari doesn’t need to make a case for his Wildcats, who have won nine of their past 11 games and take aim at their 29th SEC tournament championship on Sunday, when they face Texas A&M at Bridgestone Arena.
Kentucky and Texas A&M are the SEC’s only two locks to make the NCAA field. South Carolina was among Joe Lunardi’s “last four in” on Saturday evening in his latest Bracketology projection, and Vanderbilt was among Lunardi’s “first four out.” Alabama, Georgia and LSU were listed among Lunardi’s “next out.”
For the record, the last time the SEC sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament was back in 1979, when conferences were limited to just two teams. And in 22 of the past 25 years, the SEC has sent at least four teams to the NCAA tournament.
The fact that it’s Kentucky and Texas A&M potentially carrying the SEC banner is a story unto itself. The Wildcats have won 13 of the past 23 SEC tournament championships. This is their tournament, the proverbial Big Blue Invitational. There’s been more blue on fans in downtown Nashville this weekend than there is on most police cars.
The Aggies, on the other hand, are still getting used to this SEC thing. They shared the regular-season title with Kentucky but drew the top seed based on their 79-77 overtime win against Kentucky on Feb. 20 in College Station. It was the first SEC championship in one of the three big sports for Texas A&M since joining the league in 2012. And in basketball, the last time the Aggies won a regular-season crown was 30 years ago, when they shared the Southwest Conference title with two other teams in 1986.
But history won’t be a factor on Sunday.
“Nothing that’s happened in the past is going to help us or help them. The only thing we talk about is playing our best, and if we do that, we like our chances against anybody,” said Kentucky sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, who has been lights out for the Wildcats.
In Saturday’s 93-80 win over Georgia, Ulis scored 25 points and was 4-of-7 from 3-point range. He played 70 minutes in two SEC tournament games with 10 assists and just three turnovers. Really, the entire Kentucky backcourt has been tough to handle. Jamal Murray led the Wildcats with 26 points against Georgia after pouring in 23 the night before against Alabama. He’s 8-of-16 from 3-point range in his past two games.
“We’re going to come out prepared and come out confident and focused, and our team is ready to play,” said Murray, not needing to be reminded what happened when Kentucky and Texas A&M met during the regular season. A controversial technical foul was called on Kentucky’s Isaac Humphries late to help the Aggies’ cause.
And even though Texas A&M might be a neophyte to these SEC tournament proceedings, the Aggies (26-7) are the league’s hottest team right now. They’ve won eight in a row, including the win over Kentucky, and they obliterated LSU 71-38 in Saturday’s semifinal game.
“It’s awesome, to have the opportunity to play in this environment and at this stage,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “Again, I’m just really pleased for our guys. It’s great for our young guys to gain experience so we can progress next season, and it’s great for our seniors who have put in the time and have bought in, and I want them to absorb it and enjoy it.
“Obviously, we came here to win it, but I want them to embrace the whole experience, and it will be something they remember the rest of their lives.”
The same could be said of beating Kentucky for a second time this season, particularly doing it at what feels like Rupp Arena South, which could vault the Aggies as high as a No. 3 seed.