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South Carolina pulls off weird comeback on Kentucky, muddies the SEC picture

This story was initially supposed to be about Kentucky getting to 15-3 with a victory at South Carolina thanks in part to the morale-boosting season debut of much-hyped freshman Jarred Vanderbilt.

Instead, Kentucky flipped the script from what college basketball gave us the night before. On Monday night, we saw bluebloods Duke and Kansas roar back from double-digit second-half deficits to steal victories on the road against quality teams (Duke over Miami, Kansas over West Virginia). 

Kentucky wound up doing the opposite. It’s rare to see a John Calipari team collapse in on itself like this, but when you’re the youngest in team in college basketball, few outcomes are shocking. 

The 18th-ranked Wildcats gave up a 14-point lead late in the second half and blew their game against the Gamecocks, falling 76-68 and succumbing to a 22-point second-half swing. Vanderbilt played spot duty, but his energy was palpable. He had six points, five rebounds, three assists and a block. He has a great feel for feeding into and out of the post. Ultimately, Kentucky’s defense fell apart and its shot selection was troublesome down the stretch. UK didn’t make a field goal in the final 6:13.

Here are three key takeaways to what just happened:

1. Kentucky’s chances at a good NCAA seed are slim

Losing to a South Carolina team that’s probably not going to be in the NCAA Tournament will wind up damaging UK’s tourney dossier. There have been only two seasons under Calipari that have been letdowns on Selection Sunday. In 2012-13, Kentucky missed the NCAAs altogether. The next season, UK earned an 8 seed (then went to the NCAA championship game).

With four losses already on the books and the best victories coming against Virginia Tech, Louisville and Georgia, Kentucky has got a lot of work left to do — with some tough road tests ahead. Games at Auburn, West Virginia, Arkansas and Florida still await. This young Kentucky team isn’t winning all of those games. UK might actually wind up in that 7/8/9/10 seed territory.

2. Best player on the floor: South Carolina’s Chris Silva

Silva was tremendous, scoring 27 points — tying a career high — and grabbing eight rebounds. The Gamecocks’ run to the Final Four was thanks in large part to Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier. Silva was the secret weapon. Now the junior power forward is finding his stride.

The Gamecocks got 12 points from Silva in the final 13 minutes of the game. USC outscored Kentucky 36-14 to end the game. Silva’s started to emerge here; he just put up 27 vs. Vanderbilt last week. 

3. SEC is a cluster

With this outcome, the Wildcats are 14-4 and sit at 4-2 in the league. South Carolina, which a week ago looked stuck in the hangover of a Final Four and laboring through a rebuilding season, is now 12-6 and sitting level with a 3-3 league record.

Shoutout to Devan Downey and all that.

Auburn sits atop the conference at 4-0 in the league and 16-1 overall. KenPom.com projects Bruce Pearl’s team to win the league. Overall, the SEC is improved but seems to be more middle-heavy than any Major 7 conference. Right now Kentucky finds itself jammed in the loss column with Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri. It’s now behind a Florida team that has a 12-5 overall record. Georgia, Ole Miss, Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU are all one game behind.

Is the SEC going to be a five-bid league or a eight-bid one? There’s a lot to figure out, and I suspect the picture won’t be clear until mid-February at the earliest. It has become an intriguing season for the conference due to the shocking uprising of short-handed Auburn, the dismal run to start league play by Texas A&M (1-5), and the up-and-down showings by Kentucky.

Matt Norlander

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