SEC feeling the Cal effect

jtipton@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2009 

Kentucky basketball led by John Calipari will make success more difficult to achieve in the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said on Monday.

"John raised the bar tremendously for all of us," Pearl said on an SEC coaches' teleconference. "... He is a big thinker."

While saying Calipari will bring "great credibility" to the SEC, Pearl said Kentucky will set a higher standard than in recent seasons.

"John in the league is going to make us all better," said Pearl, who was not always a friendly rival when Calipari was at Memphis. "It's going to be more difficult to win championships, and it's going to be more difficult to finish ahead of Kentucky."

Calipari made great waves in his first three months as UK coach. In what he called an "absolute whirlwind," he recruited the nation's best freshman class, cut ties with several veteran players, took the job's public component to unprecedented heights and began a Twitter communication that he expects to gain an audience of 1 million by the start of next season. He spoke of a similar following for a new Web site UK will launch by mid-July.

Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey, who played for UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Kentucky would continue to be synonymous with basketball success.

"It's what they're going to do," Pelphrey said. "With Cal there, they're going to do it very, very quickly."

When a reporter asked about the impact Calipari has made, Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said the question itself provided the answer.

"It's very obvious already, the impact he's had," Stansbury said. "He's got you asking me a question in the middle of June about him. That tells you the impact he's had on you guys already.

"I'd be surprised if they're not 1-2-3 in the country."Even with the loss of leading scorer Jodie Meeks, who chose to stay in this year's NBA Draft, ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said he rates Kentucky among the top four teams going into next season. The other three on Vitale's list are Michigan State, Duke and Kansas.

Talk of Kentucky at the top of college basketball comes at a fallow period for the SEC. The league is coming off a season in which it received only three NCAA Tournament bids, its fewest since expanding to 12 teams in 1991-92. It's the fewest since 1990, when Kentucky was on probation and ineligible for post-season play.

Several coaches suggested that the link between fewer bids and a poor season for Kentucky might not be entirely coincidental. The three bids came when UK failed to make the NCAA Tournament this past season for the first time since 1991.

"From that standpoint, I think the higher-ups would tell you it's good (for the SEC) when Kentucky is good," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "But I don't particularly want Kentucky to be good. We have enough good teams in the league already."

Stallings chuckled and added that the SEC "higher-ups" would get their wish.

"They're going to be good, and they've always been good," Stallings said of UK. "... That place has always been good. And they will continue to be good."

Even if Kentucky had a modest basketball tradition, Calipari's presence would suggest high achievement in the future, Stallings said.

"John has had success everywhere he's been," the Vandy coach said. "To think he would not have success at Kentucky would be foolish."

LSU Coach Trent Johnson downplayed the importance of Kentucky to the SEC's basketball profile.

"It doesn't really matter," he said. "It's what you do in late February and March. That's what's going to benefit your league."

For instance, in 2006 Kentucky had relatively modest success, and the SEC had two teams in the Final Four: eventual national champion Florida and LSU.

Pelphrey offered a personal reason for another SEC coach wanting Kentucky to win. As a UK graduate, he wants Kentucky to stay ahead of North Carolina in all-time victories. Going into next season, Kentucky leads with 1,988 victories. North Carolina has 1,984.

During his playing days, Kentucky slipped to second place before regaining first place in all-time victories.

"If you had a bad week, you fell behind," Pelphrey said. With Calipari at the helm, "They have the potential to do great things."

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