February 26, 2016

Kentucky is nearing back-to-back outright SEC regular-season championships for the first time in 20 years. It's been even longer since Vanderbilt won the title, and the Commodores aren't conceding anything just yet.

The 16th-ranked Wildcats can dash Vanderbilt's hopes and inch closer to wrapping up the championship when they visit the Commodores on Saturday.

Kentucky (21-7, 11-4) holds a one-game lead over South Carolina and No. 21 Texas A&M, while Vanderbilt (17-11, 9-6) and LSU are two back with three to play.

The Wildcats won the SEC during their 31-0 regular season in 2014-15, putting them on the verge of consecutive outright titles for the first time since 1995-96. The Commodores haven't been regular-season champions since 1993.

Kentucky bounced back from a 79-77 overtime loss at Texas A&M last Saturday by beating Alabama 78-53 on Tuesday. The Wildcats played without injured starting forward Derek Willis, but senior Alex Poythress returned from a three-week absence to spark the team's fifth win in six games.

Poythress, who missed five games with a right knee injury, came off the bench to score 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 17 minutes. Jamal Murray had 23 points and Tyler Ulis added 19 points and 10 assists, his fifth game of at least 10 assists to break a school record shared by three players - most recently John Wall in 2009-10.

''It felt good to be out there again,'' said Poythress, who only returned to practice Monday. ''I missed basketball. I wasn't nervous and there was no point in being nervous. It's just basketball.''

Willis, who's averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds since joining the starting lineup in late January, sat on the bench with a boot on his foot after spraining his right ankle against the Aggies. Coach John Calipari gave no timetable on his return.

''(Poythress) could have stayed out a couple of more days,'' Calipari said. ''He knew the team needed him.''

Ulis had 21 points, Murray scored 18 and Poythress added 16 as Kentucky rolled past Vanderbilt 76-57 on Jan. 23. That began a five-game stretch where the Commodores alternated wins and losses, but they've been surging lately.

Vanderbilt has won four of five, with junior center Damian Jones putting together the best back-to-back games of his career since coach Kevin Stallings publicly criticized his team and himself after the Commodores blew a 17-point lead in losing 75-74 at Mississippi State on Feb. 16.

Jones is playing with much more emotion and has produced a career high in rebounds and points in two big wins in a row that have helped revive Vanderbilt's hopes of its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012.

Jones grabbed 16 rebounds in an 80-67 victory over Georgia last Saturday and scored 27 in Tuesday's 87-74 win at Florida.

''Just trying to make the tournament,'' Jones said. ''Been my dream forever and just trying to make it happen.''

A win Saturday before a sellout crowd at Memorial Gym not only could help Vanderbilt clinch an NCAA berth but make a move for the regular-season title and the top seed for the conference tournament next month.

Sophomore guard Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt's leading scorer with 14.4 points per game, said the Commodores know what Saturday's game means for a team trying to get to the tournament.

''There's definitely a sense of urgency, especially with all the expectations coming into the season where we should be,'' Baldwin said. ''We've let it slip a little bit, but you know we're here and opportunity's right ahead of us.''

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