SEC all but surrendering tournament to Cats

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 7, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — The Southeastern Conference Tournament would not start until the next day, but Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury was ready to crown Kentucky the champions.

"Everybody's playing for second place," Stansbury said Wednesday on the eve of the event.

By Stansbury's reckoning (and several of his coaching colleagues here agreed), Kentucky is in a class reserved for, well, not even the standout teams of Kentucky's gloried past.

"Best team they've ever had," Stansbury said.

Ever?

Ever is a long time for a UK program which won its 45th regular-season league championship this year and now may make its 29th SEC Tournament title a formality.

"It's the best team I've seen Kentucky ever had," said Stansbury, a native of Battletown, Ky., and a member of State's coaching staff since 1989-90.

No other SEC coach went quite that far. But several proclaimed the current Cats the best of Coach John Calipari's three teams.

"I don't think it's close," South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn said. "I mean, I don't think it's remotely close. I think this team, by far, is the better basketball team."

Better than the 2009-10 UK team, which featured All-Americans at basketball's two most important positions, point guard John Wall and low-post anchor DeMarcus Cousins.

Calipari's first UK team made history by producing five first-round draft picks.

"I don't know if (Calipari) has five first-rounders on this team," Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said. "Maybe. But I think this team is the best team."

LSU Coach Trent Johnson, who dismissed such comparisons as "splitting hairs," struck a discordant note. He noted his preference for the 2009-10 team, which could pound away inside with Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Cousins.

"I sort of favor the nasty, aggressive, overpowering guys," Johnson said, "because toughness always wins out, to me. I'm not saying this group isn't tough."

Anthony Davis, the SEC's (and, perhaps, the nation's) Player of the Year, elevates this Kentucky past either of Calipari's first two teams, other SEC coaches said.

"I don't know if I've ever seen a kid impact games the way he does," Horn said. "He's just a unique, unique talent."

Stansbury echoed the sentiment.

"They have weapons at every spot," the Mississippi State coach said. "The thing that separates them is they've never had one guy who dominates that rim (like Davis). And they've had some great big ones. Sam Bowie and all those cats. None of them do the things this cat does."

As UK fans know, Davis leads the nation in blocked shots and could eclipse the SEC record of 170, set twice by one of Stansbury's players, Jarvis Varnado.

"I had one about half that way, about half that good," Stansbury said, "and he was a huge impact for us. My guy protected the rim pretty good, but nothing like how Davis protects it."

Besides allowing teammates to guard more aggressively, Davis affects opponents' shot selection, Kennedy said.

"You're more inclined to shoot jump shots," the Ole Miss coach said with a knowing smile, "and percentages say the farther from the basket, the less chance you have to make it."

In addition to making the lane a no-fly zone, Davis has also shown remarkable versatility and ability on the perimeter, the coaches said.

This makes him — and by extension Kentucky — more difficult to contain.Cousins set a UK freshman record with 20 double-doubles. But the SEC coaches dismissed the notion of the former Cats muscling Davis.

"When you look at his thin build, you say get into him physically, and eliminate his ability to get in the air," Kennedy said. "But these guys (Varnado and Davis) have an ability to morph and move. It sounds great in theory, but in practicality, it doesn't work quite as well."

As for the notion of Wall using his speed to score in transition before this UK team could set its defense, the Ole Miss coach favored Davis as more than an equalizer.

"There's a reason those big guys get paid more than those little guys," he said. "That's a reason big guys are more in demand."

Noting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck's assumed position as the first pick in this spring's NFL draft, Kennedy called Davis "college basketball's version of Andrew Luck."

The SEC coaches also mentioned the cohesion and chemistry shown by this year's Kentucky team.

"I don't know if individually, they're as great," Horn said in comparing the current Cats with the 2009-10 edition. "I just think there's just a little more collective versatility (this season)."

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