POSTSEASON PREVIEW: Calipari, Cats focused on ‘that other tournament’


The Wildcats cheer for their teammates during the second half of the game agaisnt the Razorbacks at Rupp Arena on Saturday. The Cat’s defeated the Razorbacks 101-70, making them the No. 1 team in the nation. Photo by Zach Brake

On Oct. 15, 2009, freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins had a message to the doubters: “We’ll show you.”

It was Media Day at that time, and Cousins was more known for his nicknames, dancing and staggering size than anything else. With the Southeastern Conference Tournament beginning on Friday and the NCAA Tournament beginning the week after that, the Cats have another chance to silence the doubters.

But unlike most SEC teams, UK’s main focus is not the SEC Tournament.

The current focus of the No. 2 Cats (29-2, 14-2 SEC) is to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The future focus is to hang another banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena.

“My teams have had success (in conference tournaments), historically, we don’t worry about them,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “We’re only trying to win it to get a high seed (in the NCAA Tournament). And I know people may be mad, ‘We’re Kentucky we don’t do it that way.’ You hired me and that’s how I do it.”

College basketball pundits across the country say the Cats are a virtual lock for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, but Calipari said he wasn’t so sure. Calipari believes if the Cats win two games in the SEC Tournament, which would put them in the conference championship game, they will be a No. 1 seed. If they win only one game it would be dicey, Calipari said, and if they lose in their first game he’s not sure they will be a No. 1 seed.

To get to the SEC championship game, the Cats may have to go up against both of the teams that beat them earlier this season, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“The hottest team (Mississippi) is on our side (of the bracket),” Calipari said. “Two teams that just won their last game of the season (South Carolina and Alabama), we’re going to play one of them, which means they’re going to us with a two-game win streak and they’re stretched and ready to go. Mississippi has won four straight, Tennessee has won three straight. That’s all on our side (of the bracket). What? Who’s on the other side?”

For the Cats, the proverbial bull’s-eye on their back will be the biggest it’s been all season. With the SEC having only three teams as locks for NCAA Tournament bids, the nine other schools will be competing for the automatic bid that comes with winning the conference championship.

The Cats have had great success in the SEC this season and the SEC Tournament historically, winning more conference tournaments than all other members combined. But their inability to put teams away has drawn the eye of naysayers.

Freshman guard John Wall said he expects his first SEC Tournament to be crazy like the regular season.

“Some teams get a run and they feel like they can win games,” said Wall after UK’s game against Florida on Sunday when the Cats allowed an 18-point lead to be trimmed to two. “We haven’t done our best to put pressure on them. We needed to do a better job at not letting them

think they have a chance.”

With conference tournaments serving as the initial heat to the mayhem that is March Madness, allowing a team back into a game that at one point seemed to be out of reach is something UK will not want to happen.

“Whenever we get up 18, we need to make it 25, probably continue on,” junior forward Patrick Patterson said. “We need to step up, if we get tired we need to come out the game. We can’t let up.”

Almost five months later, Cousins had another message that still rings true today. When asked about how big of a recruiting tool Calipari’s ability to turn freshmen into NBA-ready players after only one year in college was, Cousins said they weren’t focused on that.

“We’re worried about winning a national championship,” he said.