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Keith Taylor: Kentucky moves past seeding snub, sets sights on making a run in NCAA Tourney

Kentucky hasn’t reached its peak, but appears to be getting closer to the pinnacle.

The Wildcats (26-8) defeated Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M in a three-day span last weekend to claim their second straight Southeastern Conference Tournament title and carries a five-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.

Derek Willis knocks down a 3 during the SEC Tournament finals Sunday in Nashville (Bill Thiry Photo)

Derek Willis knocks down a 3 during the SEC Tournament finals Sunday in Nashville (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky, the No. 4 seed in the East Region, takes on Stony Brook in the tourney opener Thurday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. Much to the dismay of Kentucky coach John Calipari and UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart, a strong showing in the conference tournament wasn’t enough to convince the selection committee to give the Wildcats a higher seed although the Wildcats have won 10 of their last 12 games.

The players aren’t as concerned about the team’s placement in a bracket that includes a possible second-round matchup with Indiana. Providing both teams keep advancing, Kentucky could face top seed North Carolina in the East region semifinals in Philadelphia next week.

Kentucky senior Alex Poythress said the abundance of tradition-rich teams in the bracket gives the Wildcats a little more incentive to perform at a high level. He also added Kentucky can’t look past the first-round matchup with the Seawolves.

“It’s a motivating factor,” he said. “We’re going to have to play them at some point, so might as well play them, get it out of the way. Try not to look at any games ahead. Try to take it one game at a time. When you look ahead, that’s when you get beat.”

Despite the inability to get a possible No. 3 seed in the Big Dance and the obstacles that await his squad, Calipari still likes his team’s chances. Calipari said the SEC Tournament, which featured a comeback win over Georgia in the semifinals and an overtime victory over league co-champion Texas A&M in the finale, provided a pair of learning experiences.

“We’re still growing as a team,” Calipari said. “You know, there were statements about, ‘well, this team was injured, this team and now.’ Well, what about us? What about our team? We were injured all year. So we’re still improving, which makes me feel pretty good as a coach because it’s what we want.”

For just the eighth time this season, Kentucky had all of its scholarship players available last weekend, proving depth in times when foul trouble became an issue, especially against the Aggies. Like his coach, forward Marcus Lee said the SEC tournament games provided another stepping stone for the Wildcats.

“It’s fun blowing people out, but you never really understand what’s coming up next, you’re never really ready,” Lee said. “Being battle-tested makes you always ready all at one time.”

Lee also said the Wildcats are “playing pretty amazing right now,” a sign the team is primed and ready to make a successful run in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re gelling perfectly right now, we’re getting things done,” Lee said. “Now we’re going to go back and make some tweaks and make sure we’re perfect for the tournament.”

Freshman Isaiah Briscoe, one of the team’s most consistent performers in the SEC tourney, agreed with Lee and said the Wildcats are coming together at the right time.

“We’re just going to keep this momentum going,” Briscoe said. “Everybody’s clicking. Everybody knows their role. We’re at our best right now.”

Lee isn’t worried about the path the Wildcats must take to reach a third straight Final Four and is confident Kentucky will achieve the same success this season.

“I’ve been here for three years and we’ve always done great,” Lee said. “We’re Kentucky, we have huge expectations and we’ll never let up for anything less.”

Game tracker: Kentucky vs. Stony Brook, Thursday, 9:40 p.m. TV/Radio: CBS, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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