Kentucky basketball is a gift to the SEC this season.
The Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country. They give the conference an elite presence in a year when the next most highly regarded team is a marginal and occasional presence in the polls and projects as a 6-seed right now. If not for UK's brilliance, well, it's be hard to say that there's any brilliance in the league at all.
Having a Goliath in the league matters for perception purposes of course, just like in football. Unlike football though, it makes a direct effect on other teams in the league thanks to the way the RPI works. The RPI may be a terrible way to judge teams—seriously, don't use it as a power ranking for anything—but the selection committee absolutely uses it every year. The Wildcats racking up win after win, especially in the non-conference, helps everyone who plays them out in the RPI.
But while Kentucky is a gift to the league, it also has a gift for the league too.
It almost gave out that gift last night to LSU in front of a rocking Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The Tigers came oh-so-close to knocking off the Wildcats, eventually falling 71-69.
The gift I'm talking about, of course, is a win over the No. 1 team in the land. No SEC member could use it more than LSU, given that they're in the most precarious tournament position thanks to accumulating three awful conference losses to Missouri, Mississippi State, and Auburn. Being able to say they beat the mighty Wildcats would have gone a long way to erasing those stains for the Tigers. Alas, it was not to be.
This was the third time UK came this close to giving out its gift after starting conference play off with a pair of overtime victories over Ole Miss and Texas A&M. I don't know if they'll end up giving out the gift or not, but between the A&M and LSU road wins combined with their slightly more comfortable (but not by much) win at Florida a week and a half ago, it's probably going to happen away from Lexington if it does at all.
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that losing prior to the tournament would be good for Kentucky. These close scrapes are few enough that I don't think they're a sign of complete mental weakness. Success can hide problems, but I don't think that's happening here. They've got the biggest target in the game on their backs, and some SEC teams aren't so bad anymore. Each of those three close call opponents are in line for NCAA Tournament bids right now.
In any event, while Kentucky teased us all again about giving away its gift, don't forget that they are a gift as well. The Wildcats may stand alone above the league, but they are pulling it up some too. We're finally back in a situation where having a titan at the top actually does help out middle class teams, as the middle class teams scheduled and played well enough in their other games to reap a meaningful benefit in the RPI.
The SEC may not be the best conference in basketball this year, but it's not the disaster it's been in some recent years either. It's about time.