Former Cats skipper knows how much of achievement SEC Crown is

Published 5:58 pm Wednesday, May 22, 2024

If anyone truly appreciates how difficult it was for Kentucky baseball to go 22-8 in Southeastern Conference play and share the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship with Tennessee, it would be Keith Madison.


Madison was UK’s head baseball coach for 25 years from 1978-2003 and broke the school record with 737 career wins. At the time of his retirement only two SEC coaches —  Ron Polk of Mississippi State and Skip Bertram of LSU —had more conference wins. Madison coached 17 players who played Major League Baseball, including 2006 Cy Young Award winner, Brandon Webb.

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He has been inducted into the Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.


“To go 22-8 in the SEC is a tremendous challenge. SEC baseball is not only the best league in the country but it is the best by far,” said Madison. “To put up those kinds of numbers in this league is really spectacular.”


The league is so spectacular that Tennessee, Arkansas, UK and Texas A&M finished 1-2-3-4 in the USA Today coaches’ final regular season poll while No. 8 Georgia gave the SEC five teams in the top 10. Mississippi State (16), South Carolina (23) and Alabama (24) also are in the top 25.


“I think (coach) Nick Mingione has put together a very mature team that seems to enjoy playing together,” Madison said. “They are a very resilient group. If somebody scores a few runs on them, they just come right back at you. If they get punched, they punch back harder. That’s one reason they were able to win that many games in league play and teams that have won that many SEC games are few and far between.”


Madison remembers when it was a “huge deal” for Kentucky to win two out of three games in a road series. He said that became a “normal” weekend for this team.


Kentucky was not ranked in the preseason but became a fixture in the top 10 and then the top five late in the season. Many felt  UK’s hot SEC start had more to do with Kentucky not playing the SEC’s premier teams early than it did UK’s talent.


“It’s not that I doubted the team after they got off to that great start but more that I respected the league so much that I know how tough it would be to keep winning,” Madison, who often works as color analyst on the UK Radio Network,  said. “But we are right there with the absolute best teams in the country and will get a really high national seed because of that.”


Kentucky will be the No. 3 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament behind Tennessee — which had the SEC Eastern Division tiebreaker over UK — and Western Division champ Arkansas, which went 1-2 against UK, when it opens tourney play Wednesday. However, the Cats should have already done more than enough to host a NCAA Tournament regional again and if they advance, host a super regional for the first time in hopes of making UK’s first College World Series.


Madison believes Kentucky is tournament-ready because of Mingione’s scheduling philosophy. Kentucky is 12-5 against ranked teams and 19-6 versus. Quad 1 opponents.That is more Quad 1 wins than any other team in the nation has.

“Nick is smart in the way he schedules. A lot of teams in the SEC do not play (non-conference) games on the road. Kentucky played a lot of road games and it will pay off for the team,” Madison said. “Nick is not afraid to play on the road because he knows that will help his team mature and get needed experience. They will be ready for NCAA Tournament play and should be a national seed hosting a regional and then a super regional if they get there.”


If Madison had a vote, not only would Mingione be SEC Coach of the Year but he would also be the national winner for what UK has already done.


“I love the way he has adjusted to the transfer portal and he gets really good kids out of the transfer portal,” Madison said. “A lot of times people think if a kid is in the transfer portal  maybe he’s had a bad attitude but Nick and his staff have been able to get great kids who love to play the game and have really bought into Nick’s style of coaching where he is really aggressive.


“I am definitely a Nick fan and love the way he adapted and adjusted to the transfer portal and brought in players who might be overlooked by some. But Nick and his staff  did their research and vetted these players and know how they play and fit into their style of play and be good students. It’s just been fun to watch and I think they have a lot of great baseball left this season.”