COLUMN: This year’s SEC title more impressive than last year’s

ATLANTA—The end result for UK at the Southeastern Conference Tournament was the same for the second consecutive year. However, the most impressive aspect of the Cats’ latest championship didn’t stem from the “what,” but the “how.”

Last year, UK was led by five future NBA first-round picks, rolled through the regular season to a 29-2 record and the question wasn’t really if it would win the SEC title, but by how much. Surprisingly, the Cats needed a buzzer-beater from freshman DeMarcus Cousins to knot the game at 64 versus Mississippi State in the 2010 final, where the Cats would later defeat a Bulldogs team that would later not make the NCAA Tournament.

Sure, the Cats’ first conference title in six years was nice, but the revolution UK head coach John Calipari had started in his first season wasn’t supposed to stop at a conference title. The Cats craved more.

Fast forward to a month removed from today, and the Cats were losers of three of four and the chances of repeating as conference champ seemed as likely as UK junior guard Darius Miller transforming into a consistently clutch player (wait for it).

For all of the criticism this year’s team received, a dominant performance throughout the tournament was hardly expected, especially against three teams—Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida—that had all managed to defeat UK in the regular season.

This year, UK’s 27th conference championship wasn’t contingent upon a buzzer-beater, the heroics of freshmen and didn’t include what one might call a nonchalance knowing that bigger conquests lay ahead in the postseason.

This year’s team had something to prove first.

“We had a little chip on our shoulder, no one expected us to win this,” said UK senior forward Josh Harrellson, a member of the SEC All-Tournament team.

Harrellson and fellow UK veterans, junior DeAndre Liggins and the increasingly-clutch SEC Tournament MVP Miller, who has made as many big shots in the last six games as he had made in his entire career, carried a youthful and injury-plagued group of Cats.

“DeAndre, Darius and Josh really carried us through this entire tournament and played the best they’ve played all year at this tournament and we really needed that,” freshman Terrence Jones said.

“It feels way better than last year,” Liggins said.

Miller, the same veteran who was much-maligned for passing up a potential game-winning shot against Ole Miss on Feb. 1, didn’t hesitate for a second when he drained back-to-back threes early in Sunday’s second half to extend the UK lead into double figures.

And the Gators would not come back from this double-figure deficit like they had previously done in their first two SEC Tourney games, not when UK was playing as well it has defensively all year; each round, UK limited its opponent to fewer points. Not when the veterans were, for the third straight day, leading the charge and couldn’t afford to shirk responsibility like they had been able to for most of last year.

That Ole Miss loss, in addition to those five other close road losses in the conference were not all for naught. Most importantly, those losses triggered something in the veterans’ brains.

“I think we learned from all those losses and it made us a better team,” Miller said.

After less than a year, but what seems like an eternity, “team” finally seems to be the best word to describe this group of Cats, who are all fulfilling their role on the team.

“Last year, we were focused on getting back, figuring out where we were seeded,” UK sophomore Jon Hood said. “This year, we’re savoring it more.”

The Cats have no chance at a No. 1 seed like last year’s group, but they did have time to cut down the nets in the Georgia Dome and mingle with some fans slogging around inside the stadium well after the final whistle.

“We’re playing well at the right time,” Liggins said. “We can’t go back, we’ve got to go forward.”

Now, that’s the kind of attitude that makes you wonder what the end result of the 2011 season could be for these streaking Cats and how they’ll continue to play to get there.