John Clay: Cats need SEC title for high NCAA seed

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 24, 2011 

John Clay

Early in the season, John Calipari made clear his goal.

Never mind winning Maui. Never mind winning at North Carolina. Never mind beating Louisville. Never mind winning the SEC. For Cal, Job 1 meant focusing on trying to earn as close to a No. 1 as it could get.

"Getting the best possible seed in the NCAA Tournament," he said.

So, came the question, you're not a coach who puts his priority on winning his conference?

"Only if it helps us get a better seed," said the coach.

Two weeks into this SEC basketball season, if the Cats are going to have any shot at earning a high seed, they are going to need to win the league.

Why? For starters, the national perception is that the conference isn't just down this year in basketball. The conference has dropped off a cliff.

The computers don't see it that way, necessarily. Through Saturday's games, the RPI ranked four of the East's six teams in its top 20 — Kentucky at No. 13, Tennessee at 17, Vanderbilt at 18, and Florida at 19.

It's the West Division that bears the blame. The West is what we thought it was. Undermanned Auburn is awful. LSU is nearly as bad. Ole Miss started league play 0-4 before ripping LSU by 27 points in Baton Rouge on Saturday. Arkansas scored all of 43 points at Florida on Saturday night and lost by 32.

Thanks to Dee Bost's return, and Rick Stansbury's decision to cut Renardo "The Fighter" Sidney yet another break, Mississippi State showed signs it might be a contender. That was before the Bulldogs were blasted 86-64 by Georgia on Saturday in Athens.

Only Alabama has shown consistency. Anthony Grant's Tide is 4-1 in league play, and owns wins over East Division foes South Carolina and Kentucky, though both in Tuscaloosa.

Florida is the only East team at 4-1. There's a logjam after the Gators, however. Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky are each 3-2. Vanderbilt and Tennessee are 2-2. And Florida travels to Georgia on Tuesday night.

Then the Bulldogs come to Kentucky on Saturday. In a scheduling quirk, the Cats will have played Mark Fox's team twice before it has played Florida or Tennessee or Vanderbilt even once.

Florida has the experience advantage in the East. Georgia might have the talent edge. Tennessee is a garish orange roller coaster. Says here Vanderbilt is the division's most dangerous team, a point driven home Saturday when the Commodores whipped a good Saint Mary's team in Nashville.

As for the Cats? Saturday's 67-58 win over South Carolina was a confidence-builder. That did not have so much do with the competition — Darrin Horn's Gamecocks are young and lacking in a couple of key areas — or even the victory as it did with the alternative.

A loss would have been a third straight road defeat. It would have formed Calipari's first losing streak in six seasons. It also would have dug the Cats a two-game hole in a highly competitive division.

Trouble is, the rest of the college basketball world doesn't see it that way. It's fixated on the West's woes, without separating divisions. It's looking at the sum of the parts, instead of the individual parts.

Kentucky showed Saturday it has what it takes to make a run at the SEC title. This year, to get the best seed Calipari craves, it will have to win the SEC.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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