Conference spotlight: No. 5 Kentucky to settle for nothing less than a national title

The No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats (18-2) have long had a stranglehold over the SEC, a conference almost as old as bourbon itself.

In a region that some say is slow to accept change, Tubby Smith’s intense group won’t accept anything less than a National Championship this March.

Unbeaten through nine conference affairs, the ‘Cats rely on the experience of versatile junior forward Kelenna Azubuike (14.6 ppg) and crafty senior guard Patrick Sparks (11.2 ppg and 4.5 apg) to lead a team with two freshmen starters.

Nearly flawless thus far, Kentucky’s two losses came at home against No. 3 Kansas and on the road against No. 2 North Carolina.

If they hope to contend with the likes of those teams again, they will need a more consistent effort from Sparks, who is shooting a lethargic .385 from the field.

The only major challenge remaining on the regular-season schedule for the Wildcats is a home matchup with No. 19 Alabama on Feb. 26.

Alabama is atop the SEC West division at 18-4 overall. Coach Mark Gottfried heads a squad with two major scoring threats.

Junior small forward Kennedy Winston (17.2 ppg) is an athletic force at both ends of the court, and meshes well with deadly shooting senior guard Earnest Shelton (17 ppg).

Gottfried has seen his schizophrenic team absolutely pummel a then-ranked Mississippi State team by 49 and lose embarrassingly at Florida by 31.

Granted, Gainesville can be a difficult place to play, as Kentucky may well learn in their last game before the SEC tournament takes place March 10-13.

Florida ber-recruiter/coach Billy Donovan has given junior guard Anthony Roberson the reins to his offense. Roberson leads the SEC with 18.4 points per game on better than 50 percent shooting, and is almost automatic at the charity stripe, hitting at a .893 clip.

Despite facing a reduced role from last season, junior forward Matt Walsh has also been a solid scoring force for the Gators. Senior forward David Lee played with Walsh in high school, and is pulling down eight rebounds a game at the four spot.

The Gators will see if they can improve their questionable road play against the LSU Tigers on Feb. 19.

LSU features big-bodied power forward Brandon Bass (17.1 points, 8.4 rebounds per game), a 254-lbs. sophomore with a nose for the basket and a fierce approach to rebounding.

Sophomore point guard Tack Minor promises to provide an excellent compliment for Bass in future campaigns.

The future figures to be the main focus for coach John Brady. The young Tigers looked impotent in losing to the Utes earlier this season by 14, but showed their potential in a big win on the road against Alabama.

Other contenders in the SEC include South Carolina and Mississippi State. Senior forward Carlos Powell leads the Gamecocks with 15.3 points per game. South Carolina lost three times against top 10 teams by four points on each occasion.

Mississippi State’s Lawrence Roberts tops the SEC in rebounding (11.1 rebounds) and is second in scoring (18.2 points), but has lacked the support to get his team over the hump in close games.

Meanwhile, No. 5 Kentucky hopes they don’t have the same problem as they fight for another shot at the nation’s best teams.

The Wildcats have managed to beat everybody they were supposed to beat so far this year. Come March, Kentucky will need an upset or two if it hopes to add to its seven national titles.

If that happens, bet on the bourbon flowing on the streets of Lexington again.

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