Neutral floor. High-intensity play. Win or go home.
The Southeastern Conference Tournament seemed like good preparation for Kentucky going into the NCAA Tournament. But UK Coach John Calipari downplayed that notion.
Kentucky won’t have such a monopoly of fans at NCAA Tournament sites, he said.
Several players said the regular season as a whole serves to prepare Kentucky.
“All of our games are great NCAA prep games,” Marcus Lee said after Kentucky beat Texas A&M for the SEC Tournament title. “Because everybody comes and gives us their absolute best with no remorse. And to them, that’s their only game.
“I think our season is totally set up to get us ready for March.”
Tyler Ulis agreed, although he acknowledged that Kentucky’s gut checks against Georgia and Texas A&M over the weekend here had postseason intensity.
“Coach always talks about every game for us is like a tournament game,” Ulis said. “Everybody gives it their best shot. So I feel we’re prepared as a team, especially coming off these two games. And we’re ready for it.”
Texas A&M players spoke of the SEC Tournament as good preparation, although it’s hard to see how the cartoonish semifinal victory over LSU (final score 71-38) can help.
“It was good for both of us,” swingman Alex Caruso said of Sunday’s title game. “Just to play in that kind of atmosphere with a lot of people in an arena we’re not used to.
“That’s the NCAA Tournament for you. That’s Sweet 16, Elite 8 on. That’s what it’s going to be like.”
Jalen Jones said A&M could use Sunday’s loss to Kentucky as a teaching tool for the final minutes of a close game.
“Just to know some of the things you have to do toward the end of games,” he said. “How to execute and what not to do.”
The SEC Tournament followed the form established in the regular season. Guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray led Kentucky.
But Calipari suggested other players will decide UK’s fate in the NCAA Tournament.
“If our ‘bigs’ don’t play, we’re not advancing … ,” Calipari said. “And if they do play (well), we will advance.
“That’s just how it is.”
Calipari said that freshman Skal Labissiere took a step back in the SEC Tournament. Labissiere excited UK fans by scoring 29 points and grabbing 17 rebounds in the regular season’s final week.
But in three SEC Tournament games, he had 11 points and six rebounds.
“Skal reverted a little bit,” Calipari said. “And I told him: You can either be excited about playing or worried about playing.”
Calipari seemed to imply that Labissiere was stressed about playing here.
“Then you have lines on your forehead,” the UK coach said. “And then pimples pop up.
“Or you could be totally excited about playing, and then you see that Skal out there bouncing around and jumping around. He did some good stuff today. He’s just not playing like he was 10 days ago.”
The media voted Ulis as Most Valuable Player of the SEC Tournament.
In three games, UK’s point guard and floor leader scored 72 points (24 ppg), made 22 of 44 shots (50 percent), had 15 assists and only four turnovers in 115 minutes.
Jamal Murray (66 points) gave UK a second member of the all-tournament team.
Other players on the all-tournament team were Jalen Jones (40 points) and Danuel House (51 points) of Texas A&M and Georgia point guard J.J. Frazier.
Aussies have a Ulis?
While Tyler Ulis may seem like a one-of-a-kind player, that’s not true.
UK freshman Isaac Humphries suggested there are others.
“He’s an incredible player,” Humphries said of Ulis before adding, “We have players like that, too, in Australia.”
When asked who, Humphries said, “There are a couple. They’re in the NBA right now.”
UK fans turned Bridgestone Arena into Rupp Arena South.
“It felt like they had a home-court advantage,” Danuel House said. “They probably had 18,000-plus of the fans. It was a big energy booster for them.
“But it’s also helped us.”
When asked how a highly partisan crowd in favor of Kentucky could help A&M, House said, “When you make plays that quiet the crowd, that gives you energy, and makes you want to go the extra mile.”
If his team played Kentucky in a best-of-seven series, forward Jalen Jones would pick his Texas A&M team.
“I still think we’re a better team,” Jones said with a smile. “I still believe that. They got us by a little bit today.”