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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari is not concerned about whether his team plays Vanderbilt or Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals Friday night in Nashville. Those two teams play Thursday with the winner advancing to take on UK, which got a bye for its second-place league finish.
“We had two games that could have gone either way with Vanderbilt and Arkansas smashed us. So either game, either team is going to be a hard game for us,” said Calipari. It isn’t going to be like, ‘OK, we win this game.’ Arkansas absolutely demolished us. And Vanderbilt had their chances to beat us twice.”
Calipari has made no secret of his disdain for conference tournaments even though UK won the SEC tourney title in 2010 and 2011 before losing in the final to Vanderbilt this year. However, all three years UK was clearly already in the NCAA Tournament. This year the Cats might need one, or two, wins to solidify a spot in the NCAA.
Still, Calipari’s feeling about the tourney has not changed.
“I wish none of us played in the tournament. Let’s go on to the next tournament. But we’re in this tournament. Now some years we’re playing for a seed. There is an importance to the game. It’s not the tournament itself,” Calipari said. “I have not changed. Other years it’s, ‘OK, you’ve got to get this one to make sure you’re in, or you may have to get two, or you may have to win the tournament.’
“So there’s an importance to it that way — seeding or whatever else. But as far as playing in a tournament at this time, three games in three days, I’m not a big fan.”
Calipari spent a lot of time on the SEC coaches teleconference Monday praising other league coaches.
“What Tony (Barbee’s) done (at Auburn). What Rick (Ray) has done (at Mississippi State). What Frank (Martin) has done (at South Carolina). You’ve got guys continuing to coach their teams and guys making strides,” Calipari said. “And Billy (Donovan of Florida), when you have the target on your back, I’ve been there. That’s the hardest time to coach. And the job he’s done.”
He’s called Mark Fox of Georgia, Johnny Jones of LSU and Cuonzo Martin of Tennessee to praise what they have done with their teams.
“And I’m even going to throw a bouquet to Kevin Stallings (at Vanderbilt), who doesn’t like to throw bouquets, but I’m going to throw one to him. The job he’s done with that young team to get them to play the way they’re playing,” Calipari said. “This year there has been more coaching than any of the other years I’ve been in this league.
“For us, I feel good that out of the top six teams playing against each other, we have the best record — us and Florida. So I’m proud of what this team has accomplished with all the injuries and all the other stuff that’s gone on. But we’re still fighting, and that’s what tournament time is about.”
However, there is one league coach Calipari says has not done a good job.
“One guy has done a crap job with his team and I think it’s me. What we’ve done at times and what we’ve accepted is not what I’ve accepted in the past,” Calipari said. “But I’ve been really impressed (with everyone else). I think, because of that, that coaching, that ability to get through to their teams and keep them believing, that I believe this tournament is going to be crazy. I think it’s going to be crazy.”
Calipari said consistency is what he wants from his team coming off Saturday’s upset of Florida.
“We come off a Missouri win, which was a heck of a win, and then we just go and lay two eggs (at Arkansas and Georgia). Now we’re coming off a Florida win. Normally I would give them today (Monday) off. Well, I’m not. We’re going to go really hard today and really focus on us being consistent in our effort, trying to sustain energy throughout a practice – all of those kinds of things that this team has lacked throughout,” the UK coach said.
“Now, we’ve overcome a ton. Willie (Cauley-Stein’s) out and we’re winning without him. Now Nerlens (Noel) is out and we beat Missouri and Florida without him. Our point guard (Ryan Harrow) is out early and we played without a point guard. We’re playing shorthanded. All that stuff, this team overcame a lot, and I’m proud of them, but we’re still inconsistent, and that’s what I’m trying to get (out of) these next few days. Let’s just know that we’re going to be consistent in our effort.”