John Clay: NCAA title the goal, but pause (briefly) to enjoy SEC crown

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 25, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

John Calipari wasn't popping any champagne.

It means nothing to him. In his eyes, what counts is the school's quest for an eighth banner. What matters is that search for a coach's first national championship. League titles? Cal's got bigger fish to fry.

"Every game we play," the Kentucky coach said Saturday, "it's all about seeding."

And yet, obviously, it means something to the fans.

When the final horn sounded Saturday, and Kentucky had completed an 83-74 victory over Vanderbilt to run its conference record to 14-0, and public address announcer Patrick Whitmer proudly pronounced that the school had just won its 45th SEC basketball title, the 24,388 in Rupp Arena roared their approval.

"It's nice," acknowledged Calipari. "I told (the team) congratulations, but you all know, this is not why we are playing. And they know that."

We know that, too. This team is too talented and too unselfish and too accomplished not to shoot for the sport's biggest prize.

And yet, somehow, it would be almost criminal not to stop and smell the roses along the way.

After all, as Calipari said Saturday, "There aren't many games left to play."

No, there are not. Just two regular-season games, in fact. That's almost a shame when you consider just how lucky we've been to watch this team mature, grow and deal with the pressure of being No. 1.

Why Saturday, there was the incomparable Anthony Davis delivering a soaring stump speech for Player of the Year honors by scoring a career-high 28 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

Not once, not twice, but three times Davis made field goals just as the shot clock was drawing perilously close to zero.

There was Marquis Teague shaking off a rash of three turnovers in the first three minutes to finish with 16 points, all while making just one turnover the rest of the way.

There was Darius Miller once again rising up to score nine clutch points in the game's final 10 minutes, then somehow finding his way out of a backcourt trap with 37 seconds left to feed Terrence Jones for a game-sealing dunk.

Better still, there was this quote from Kevin Stallings.

"I like their team from an opposing coach standpoint because they try to play the right way," said the Vanderbilt coach.

"They aren't out there running their mouths or doing things that I think are uncalled for or unsportsmanlike. They just play the game. They play hard. And they play for each other, and I really respect that."

Such teams win championships.

And it's easy to forget that although Kentucky won the SEC Tournament a year ago, it didn't win the regular-season crown.

Yes, the Cats of Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins reached the Final Four, but they finished second in the SEC East behind Florida. UK won 10 and lost six, all on the road.

It's also easy to forget that three years ago, Billy Gillispie's second and final season, Kentucky dropped its final four games to finish 8-8 in the league, or that before Calipari arrived on campus in 2009 the Cats had gone four seasons without even an SEC division title. For Kentucky, in basketball, that's an eternity.

In the end, of course, Calipari is right. Conference crowns are not the be-all, end-all.

"We have over the years won a lot of conference championships and tournament championships," he said. "But I'm telling you, my teams — that isn't what they're playing for. It's all about that seed."

At the home of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, teams are ultimately judged by what they do in March, not what they did in February.

"This is just a step," said Jones.

Still, it can't hurt to celebrate the accomplishments along the way.

"Conference champs" always has a ring to it.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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