Last week, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith suggested his team didn’t belong among the nation’s elite. He now believes the Wildcats are getting closer, as do the voters in the media.
In the AP poll for the first time since November, No. 25 Kentucky looks to reverse the result of a loss to South Carolina in last season’s Southeastern Conference tournament and extend a 10-game overall winning streak Tuesday.
The Wildcats (14-3, 3-0), who own the fifth-longest winning streak in the nation, returned to the Top 25 Monday after dropping out in late November. They lost three of four immediately prior to the current streak.
“I think we’re starting to play better,” Smith said. “We’re moving in that direction of being one of the top teams in the country.”
Kentucky fell out of the poll after losing two of three games in the Maui Invitational. The Wildcats, though, haven’t lost since Dec. 2 at No. 4 North Carolina and have begun SEC play 3-0 for the sixth time in 10 seasons under Smith.
Kentucky now makes a trip to South Carolina (10-5, 0-2), which knocked the Wildcats out of the semifinals of last year’s SEC tournament en route to a championship run through the National Invitation Tournament.
Four of the last five times Kentucky has started 3-0 in the SEC it has gone on to win the regular-season championship.
“Most of us think we’re a top 25 team, no doubt,” Kentucky guard Joe Crawford said. “But that’s not our main focus. That’s not our main goal. We want to be SEC champions. We don’t want to get into the top 25 and get relaxed, not still be hungry to be champions.”
Although the Wildcats currently have the nation’s fifth-highest RPI rating, which could be a factor when dishing out this year’s tournament seeds, Smith has encouraged his players to ignore the polls.
“I have no clue, and I really don’t care,” guard Ramel Bradley said of Kentucky’s position.
Randolph Morris blocked a potential game-tying shot with five seconds left as the Wildcats defeated Mississippi State 64-60 Saturday night.
Crawford had 14 points, including three 3-pointers, for Kentucky and Ramel Bradley had 11 - his 10th straight double-digit scoring effort since moving from point guard to shooting guard.
Morris leads the Wildcats with 16.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.
The Gamecocks have been blown out in three straight games, two to teams ranked in the top 10.
An 84-50 loss to top-ranked Florida on Saturday was among the most lopsided defeats in coach Dave Odom’s six seasons at South Carolina. On Jan. 7, the Gamecocks were beaten 70-54 by then-No. 9 Kansas.
Tre Kelley had 24 points against Florida, but was the only Gamecock in double figures.
“I always have confidence we can win any game,” Kelley said. “Obviously we’re going to have to fight. We can’t hang our heads down because it’s a long season and we have to move on. I don’t want to wait until the postseason to turn it around. We can do it in SEC play.”
Kelley has scored 20 points or more five times this season. He leads the team with 16.3 points and 4.7 assists per game.
Odom praised freshman forward Evaldas Baniulis’ play against Florida. He played a season-high 33 minutes and tied his season best with five rebounds.
“Evaldas Baniulis played well. He’s going to be a good player. He’s young and doesn’t know the ways of SEC basketball yet, but he will learn.”
Kentucky leads its all-time series with South Carolina 37-7.