It feels like it’s now or never.

Imagine that. Every college basketball coach in America can probably use those words in some pregame speech this time of year. If words like that are needed to motivate a team in March, that’s sad.

But with Kentucky, this week feels like a different kind of “now or never” scenario. The Wildcats, the team that’s again loaded with 5-star freshmen who will likely jump ship to the NBA at season’s end, will enter the SEC Tournament as the ultimate wild card. If they figure it out, perhaps they make a 2014-like run to the NCAA Tournament National Championship game. If they don’t, they could bow out even earlier than the 2016 squad the was bounced in the second round.

This week feels like the perfect litmus test for Kentucky. If the Cats can beat what could be 3 NCAA Tournament-bound squads en route to their fourth consecutive SEC Tournament title, it’s time to go all in.

And if Kentucky can’t show up ready to play in St. Louis, perhaps an early NCAA Tournament exit is inevitable.

Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Let me explain. Usually, I don’t buy into the theory that a team that wins the conference tournament is bound for NCAA Tournament success. Actually, the past 4 national champions lost their conference tournaments. Perhaps it gave those teams the extra rest they needed, or maybe it was a kick in the pants at the right time.

Kentucky should have already gotten the kick in the pants that it needed. Florida was responsible for that.

After trouncing four consecutive SEC teams by double digits, the Wildcats were walloped in Gainesville to close out the regular season. Kentucky will have had nearly a week to think about that lost before it plays its first SEC Tournament game on Friday.

If the Wildcats come out flat and get embarrassed again, what would make anyone think that the NCAA Tournament should be any different? The young Cats will get a similar amount of rest time and they’ll likely face a similar level of opponent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There are only so many buttons you can press on a team before you finally get through to them.

John Calipari tried to do that after the Mizzou game in February when he saw that his team still wasn’t playing together 3 months into the season. Correcting that, he said repeatedly, was what was going to determine how high his 5-star talent would fly.

That, by the way, was the beginning of a 4-game losing streak that nearly spiraled Kentucky’s season out of control. It didn’t matter that Calipari took to social media for help after the first of those four losses:

It’s been a month since Calipari pushed that button, and it’s still been a roller coaster. Now with a chance to beat a quality Mizzou team (if the Tigers advance to the quarterfinals) that could have 5-star freshman Michael Porter Jr. back, Calipari  changed things up again. He took part of the blame for his team’s poor performance at Florida because they didn’t scrimmage leading up to it. He doesn’t want his team to get in AAU mode in the postseason.

“We’re going to go after each other and see if we can get it back to where we were a week-and-a-half, two weeks ago,” Calipari said on Monday (via The Courier-Journal).

That came at a cost. Five-star freshman Jarred Vanderbilt went down with an injury in practice Wednesday and is “day-to-day” for the SEC Tournament.

That’s all the more reason for guys like Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo to step up on the defensive end. That should be the reaction to that type of news this late in the season. It doesn’t matter if it’s freshmen who have to make that adjustment.

The SEC showed Kentucky all year why talent alone will not get the program to its ultimate goal. Nobody cared that the Cats were the preseason No. 5 team in the country, and nobody is going to care this week that they have a bunch of future NBA players. If that reality hasn’t sunk in this week, it won’t sink in next week, either.

But if this is the turning point and they finally play like the team many thought they could be, the SEC and all of college basketball are in trouble. Kentucky fans have been waiting all year for that exhale moment. They could get it while watching their team hoist an SEC Tournament trophy for the fourth straight year.

Either way, we’re in for a telling week in St. Louis.