UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Cats find tournament valuable after all

LSU's John Isaac tried to wrap up Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as Kentucky struggled in the first half of the SEC tourney game in New Orleans. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
LSU's John Isaac tried to wrap up Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as Kentucky struggled in the first half of the SEC tourney game in New Orleans. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

NEW ORLEANS — Here in the Big Easy, the hard question was this:

Are the Cats better off for having to gut out a close-shave 60-51 SEC Tournament quarterfinal win over a rough, tough physical opponent that was LSU?

Or are the Cats worse off now that the curious competition has had its working theory confirmed that bullying the Cats is the best way to play the Cats.

"People will be watching the tape," said John Calipari afterward, "saying, 'This is how you need to play them.'"

And to think Kentucky's coach doesn't believe these post-season conference tournaments are worth the bother.

They are worth it for the ticket-buying, nomadic Big Blue public, of course. Calipari knows it, said it, and admitted his team feels an obligation to give its best considering the Blue-backing mob that has descended upon the Crescent City.

"I'm going to guess that 95 percent of the people in this arena cannot get in Rupp Arena for a game," said Calipari of the blue hue that filled the New Orleans Arena. "So this is their event."

LSU is 80 miles up the road — and there might have been 80 LSU fans in the arena.

But Cal has made no secret that this is not his event. Kentucky is now 31-1. It has an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed signed, sealed and everything but delivered. Had UK lost to Trent Johnson's Tigers, the league's No. 8 seed, on Friday, it still would be on the top line when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee makes its picks public on Sunday night.

Yet, for a team that starts three freshmen and two sophomores, isn't there some benefit to three more games, to earning some post-season tournament experience, to facing a different style against a team that was desperate for a victory?

"I think so," said UK center Anthony Davis after recording his 15th double-double of the season. "Most definitely."

That's especially true the way LSU played. The Tigers used a physical style against UK back in Baton Rouge in January and lost by 24. But the book has still been that getting rough was the way to get at the Cats. Florida Coach Billy Donovan said it Sunday after his Gators lost to UK in Gainesville. So LSU tried it again Friday, with much better success.

Over its last four games, Kentucky had averaged eight turnovers per game. LSU forced UK into committing 18 turnovers.

Davis turned it over four times. Terrence Jones turned it over four times. Point guard Marquis Teague turned it over four times. Senior Darius Miller, who went scoreless for the second time all season, committed three turnovers.

"Our spacing wasn't real good," Calipari said. "Our decision-making on drives — 'Come on, get it to the rim. Why aren't you playing through the bumps?' ... They caused them. It wasn't us. They just got up in us and made it tough."

According to stats wizard Ken Pomeroy, Kentucky entered Friday's play with the second-most efficient offense in the country. The Cats had strung together 13 consecutive games of a point or more per possession, considered a good offensive performance. UK's average was 0.9 on Friday.

"It just got too physical for our guys," said Calipari.

This is good, however. Better to be bothered by the bumps in the first game of a rather meaningless conference tournament — and win — than run up against a good, physical team in the NCAA Tournament, and lose.

"For our first game, we knew they were going to come out like a desperation game for them," Davis said. "(That) really has to have us thinking now. OK, the team's going to come out and play us like their life is on the line. And if we don't come out and play, then we can lose. So I think it was a great game for us to play to get our mind set right going into our next game."

Maybe these conference tournaments are worth something, after all.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader