ATLANTA -- Three things hung in the balance for the basketball Wildcats when they arrived in Atlanta for the SEC basketball tournament:
-- Could they stop floundering and return to the form they showed when they beat Louisville and hung with Florida at home for 34 minutes?
-- Was there any way, should they elbow their way past LSU and Georgia into the championship game, they could find a way to beat the Gators for the SEC tournament title?
-- Could they improve their standing in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selections committee?
As it turns out, they took care of item one, which nearly allowed them to check off number two. But even if they had completed the upset of the nation's top-ranked team, it wouldn't have mattered when it came to item three. The Cats were going to be no better than a seven seed.
And it had nothing to do with a conspiracy. It had more to do with a weak season of basketball in the Southeastern Conference. And with ESPN.
Yes, the network that will serve as midwife when the SEC gives birth to its new television channel this summer wanted the world to see the ACC championship game, Duke taking on Virginia, before it settled in with Florida vs. Kentucky. It might have ensured a larger audience for the SEC final but it most certainly tied the hands of the committee, which already had let it be known that the SEC game was played so late in the afternoon that it would have no bearing on seedings.
Had James Young not slipped, had unranked Kentucky pulled the upset of the number one Gators, it would have been embarrassing but it also would have put even more pressure on the league to, at the very least, change the start time for its title game. How about 1 p.m., as it was for so long? Or noon? Why not do your member institutions a favor?
A Saturday finale would be even better, except for the fact that Saturday already is crammed full of games, through midnight; the TV slot on Sunday is better (national attention/recruiting); the league now has 14 teams, meaning the event would have to start on Tuesday; fans whose teams are in the quarterfinals would have to take an extra day off from work, etc.
So it appears Sunday is the day, but the later start helps only the TV suits.
There is a possibility that the Cats were a 7 seed, but were moved to an 8 so they could play closer to home. It happens that way sometimes. By rule, the committee can move a team up or down a slot to accommodate location, if the members see the need or value.
That argument held no weight with Mitch Barnhart. "Tell me where our fans won't go," the UK athletics director said. "They go everywhere, so they could have shipped us to San Diego and we'd have been just fine. They'd have showed up. Our fans are awesome. Love 'em."
John Calipari liked the proximity, but also pointed out that St. Louis is close to Wichita and Kansas State as well.
"They don't have to explain it," he said of the committee members, who had made it clear they wanted to see teams play tougher schedules. Kentucky's was one of the toughest in the country, but the Cats lost nearly all of their toughest games. "So we got to go play. We got to play basketball in St. Louis."
It wasn't the worst fate to befall an SEC team. That dubious distinction goes to Tennessee, which has to compete in a play-in game, which the NCAA insists on calling a "first-round" game, to the satisfaction of nobody.
The Volunteers have to play Iowa Wednesday night in Dayton; then if they win, hit the road for a Friday date with Midwest #1 seed Wichita State.
"I don't know where the image of our league is right now," Calipari said, "What we just did with Florida - does that mean they're not very good?"
Not to the committee. The Gators are a #1 seed. But Kentucky suffered from guilt by association with SEC basketball this season. There were precious few quality wins by any league teams out of conference, including UK, which is why an SEC victory didn't help as much as a loss to a second-tier SEC team hurt. South Carolina, anyone?
Said Barnhart, "I'm not sure the league got a lot of respect today. Maybe we've got to go earn that."
There's only one way to do it. And the road map to respect lead through St. Louis, starting Friday.