NASHVILLE — It’s Kentucky’s Tournament. Check that. It was Kentucky’s tournament. Now the SEC Tournament is becoming another means of underlining the simultaneous improvement of the SEC as a whole and the decline in Kentucky basketball’s fortunes.

After Friday’s 80-73 quarterfinal loss to Vanderbilt, the Wildcats are in historic position. Just not the kind they wanted to be in.

John Calipari’s Wildcats came into Nashville with a chance to legitimize some mild late-season success. Instead, they lost to Vandy for the second time in 10 days. Vandy, without its best player, came into Rupp Arena and then rode across Nashville into another arena filled with 80-90% Kentucky fans and took down UK twice.

Kentucky turned Vandy’s Ezra Manion into Steph Curry. The 5-10 Manion had a season-high 25 points in 29 minutes, knocking down 8-of-11 shots. With Cason Wallace badly limping on a bum leg and CJ Fredrick looking like he’d be content to keep his injured ribs out of harm’s way, the Wildcats struggled to stop Manion all night. They also struggled to stop his teammates, too.

Vandy hit 10 3-pointers and made 16-for-28 2-point attempts — mostly of them open looks at the rim. Kentucky outrebounded Vandy 43-26. Jacob Toppin had 21 points and 11 rebounds. Oscar Tshiebwe did Oscar Tshiebwe things (19 points and 15 rebounds). But Kentucky lost.

“Vandy deserved to beat us,” Calipari said after the game.

He was right. And he would have been right 9 days before when Vandy won in Rupp Arena.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for Big Blue Nation, a group that often sees winning the SEC Tournament as something of a birthright. In their defense, Kentucky has won more SEC Tournaments than the rest of the league. Combined. But Auburn, Alabama, and Tennessee have hoisted that trophy since Calipari’s Wildcats last did in 2018. In a world where SEC Tournament trips become spring break family vacations and actual blue-clad children were visibly shedding tears in Bridgestone Arena on Friday, Calipari’s words didn’t help much.

Sure, blame the players. Calipari did. “We had some guys not make plays,” he admitted. Calipari refused to identify who, but on a night when Kentucky shot 24% from 3-point range and 55% from the foul line, some of those guys are evident. Kentucky got 0 points and only 1 shot attempt from its bench.

Or blame injuries. Despite the NCAA keeping 13 allotted scholarships, Calipari basically played 6 players Friday, 1 of whom was hobbled by a heavily-wrapped leg, 1 of whom has busted ribs, and another of whom (Toppin) suffered some sort of minor injury leading up to the game. “We’ve got to get three or four good practices in with a full team,” Calipari said. It showed.

Blame the improvement of the SEC. Even some of the angrier members of the Big Blue Nation could admit that Jerry Stackhouse has done a masterful job this season with the Commodores, taking them to the SEC Tournament semifinal for the first time since 2017. The league could have as many as 9 NCAA Tournament teams. The best player in the conference was wearing Alabama red on Friday. The co-coaches of the year coach at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. The top recruiting class might have been Arkansas’.

But also maybe blame the $8 million man with a propensity for blowing off press conferences. Calipari did at least manage to appear and field questions Friday after the loss. It won’t replace the vacation fund of some members of Big Blue Nation, but it did at least give his critics a chance to ask him, in some variation or fashion, what exactly is happening to Kentucky basketball?

One thing that definitely happened is that Calipari’s players weren’t the only ones who apparently missed a lesson in Vandy delivering UK’s 4th home loss of the season on March 1. The Wildcats looked just as ill-prepared for the Commodores on their second matchup Friday. Sure, there are systemic issues. The bench is non-existent. The players missed shots. But then again, who didn’t use his scholarships better or put together a more complementary roster or add enough depth that he had more than 6 available players? Can’t really put that on the guys missing free throws.

Calipari was optimistic after the game.

“We can beat anybody,” he noted, while claiming later, “I like the team.”

Friday night, as UK fans canceled reservations and looked to sell tickets, it sounded more like whistling past the graveyard from Calipari than making lengthy NCAA Tournament plans.

The SEC Tournament is not Kentucky’s tournament anymore. Not until some things change.