Proud Kentucky may bring something unusual to this year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament: Doubt.
On Monday, UK Coach John Calipari sounded unsure of what to expect from his team in St. Louis.
“I was feeling good till we went down to Florida and got rocked,” Calipari said on an SEC coaches’ teleconference.
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Florida beat Kentucky 80-67, which was Kentucky’s most lopsided defeat of the season. On the bright side, the Cats reduced a 23-point deficit to nine midway through the second half. But then UK faded.
“Had our chances to come back in the game,” Calipari said. “Not capable of doing it.”
Calipari second-guessed his decision not to scrimmage during practices in the final week of the regular season because of the quick turnaround from playing Ole Miss on Wednesday night and then at Florida at noon.
“It took the edge off some guys we needed to compete and have more of a competitive spirit,” he said.
Calipari used humor to ease the self-recrimination “Everyone, once in a while my decisions aren’t right,” he said. “Few and far between. But there are times they aren’t right. And this is probably one of them.”
By blaming himself, Calipari continued a pattern of trying to protect the UK players, who, of course, make up perhaps the least experienced team in college basketball history. He has asked ever-demanding, never-satisfied UK fans to direct their disappointment at him rather than the players.
Not that Calipari gave the players a blanket pardon.
The UK coach lamented how his players seemed comfortable exchanging baskets at Florida and in the midweek victory over Ole Miss.
“You’re not exchanging baskets,” he said. “That’s high school. That’s AAU. (On the college level), you’re competing against someone else. . . . You’re making plays to get them to foul you or get a basket. You’re not exchanging baskets.
“If you’re in that mode, you’re going to get beat.”
The ease with which any team could get beat in St. Louis was a theme throughout Monday’s teleconference.
More than half of SEC games this regular season were decided by nine or fewer points (65 of 126). And more than 20 percent of league games came down to a final possession and/or required an overtime (27 of 126).
More evidence of parity: This season was only the fifth time in SEC history — and the first time in 30 years — that the last-place team won at least five league games. It happened earlier in 1987-88, 1982-83, 1977-78 and 1970-71.
Of course, the SEC has not played an 18-game league schedule every season. But it has played an 18-game league schedule in 31 previous seasons: 1966-67 through 1990-91, then 2012-13 through this season.
Calipari suggested that UK’s opener — against either the winner of Wednesday’s Vanderbilt-Georgia first-round game or against Missouri — could be challenging.
“I would not be surprised to see Georgia march through this tournament,” he said. “Not at all.”
Calipari reminded listeners that Vanderbilt could have beaten Kentucky twice.
The possible addition of highly regarded freshman Michael Porter Jr., makes Missouri “very, very dangerous,” Calipari said.
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson echoed the theme of a wide-open, any-team-can-win-it SEC Tournament by saying, “Whomever is projected to win the tournament, or have the highest percentage chance to win it, who knows? They might not even get out of the first (game). You never know.
“I wouldn’t be surprised by anything that happens in the tournament because of how balanced the league is.”
However, Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland cautioned against dismissing the possibility of well-worn form holding true. “Never ever discount Kentucky,” he said. UK has won more SEC tournaments (30) than current and former league schools have combined to win (27).
Kentucky plans to arrive in St. Louis on Wednesday. UK plays its first game in the Friday afternoon session of the quarterfinals.
Calipari’s doubt about Kentucky beginning with the first game showed itself — albeit in the form of humor — when he asked a sportswriter from Missouri if one of his favorite Italian restaurants was still in business in St. Louis,
When told that Cunetto House of Pasta was still in business, Calipari said, “I’ll be there Wednesday night, Thursday night, well, maybe Friday night.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis
Kentucky’s opener: UK plays either Georgia, Vanderbilt or Missouri in Friday afternoon’s second game, which should tip off around 3:25 p.m. EST.