UK Men's Basketball

Cats already own SEC title heading into finale

When South Carolina beat Vanderbilt on Saturday, Kentucky clinched its 44th Southeastern Conference regular-season championship. The upset in Nashville eased any urgency Kentucky might have felt to beat Florida on Sunday to avoid having to share the title.

To hear Patrick Patterson, the Cats did feel such an urgency. Having to share the championship would have been unacceptable.

"I mean, there's a huge difference," Patterson said on Friday. "We don't want a tie. We believe we should win the SEC and we have to go out and prove it."

Nothing against Vanderbilt, Patterson said. Kentucky respects the Commodores.

"We don't want to share," he said. "... We believe we deserve it. All we have to do is step on the court and do it."

UK Coach John Calipari had downplayed the league championship all season. When asked recently what it meant to win the SEC, he shook his head and said, "Nothing."

But Calipari made an exception at Georgia on Wednesday. Sensing a ho-hum attitude going into a shootaround the day of game, he reminded the players of how a championship was on the line.

On Friday, Calipari reverted to form. The championship receded in importance. The quality of UK's play and the team's preparation for the NCAA Tournament is the important thing.

"The big picture here is that seed," Calipari said, meaning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. "If winning this game (against Florida) helps us get that seed, then that's great."

Calipari suggested that as a so-called "bubble" team, Florida will bring a passion to the game. After his team's slow starts at Tennessee and at Georgia the last 10 days, he wondered aloud if Kentucky could match the Gators' zeal.

Vanderbilt's loss to South Carolina certainly did nothing to enhance UK's sense of urgency.

"The thing that happens is you're kind of in a battle," he said. "And one side will give up their life for that battle. And the other team is just battling. One team will lose their life for their cause.

"And you're not?!"

That's a formula for defeat, Calipari said.

"You're eventually losing because they will keep coming," he said. "We've got to have a team that understands: If a team comes at us and they're playing like if they lose, they're going to the electric chair ..."

The Cats must match that intensity.

As Calipari himself has said on several occasions, this is nothing new for Kentucky. The Cats are each opponent's Super Bowl, he's said.

Although his team had already all but clinched an NCAA Tournament bid, Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl stoked his players' fire by suggesting a victory over Kentucky would make for a great season. A string of opponents have looked at beating Kentucky as a way to polish up a post-season résumé.

Calipari said matching that intensity game after game is not easy.

"It's hard," he said before noting the consequences. "What if three (players) really bring it and two decide they're not? Then it looks like the whole team's not ready.

"Or what if four guys are in a dog-fight, vicious battle. And one guy chooses not to do it? What happens is 10 offensive rebounds in the first six minutes. Three of them over one guy."

That was a not-so-subtle reference to DeMarcus Cousins, whose slow start at Georgia earned him a spot on the bench.

Calipari noted that the players encouraged each other during timeouts at Georgia.

"That means they're starting to become empowered," Calipari said. "They want it as bad as I want it for them. And they're willing to coach each other and challenge each other."

In the game at Florida in January, Kentucky built a 55-40 lead. Then Erving Walker led a Florida charge that tied it at 72-72 with 5:13 left. Kentucky got the better of it down the stretch and won 89-77.

"He's going to be inspired," Calipari said of Walker.

"It'll be a hard game. The game down there was hard. We had one of our best efforts and barely beat them."