NCAA Tournament

Calipari preps for NCAA Tournament without Davis

Kentucky's Eloy Vargas (30) was guarded by Georgia's Nemanja Djurisic before scoring in the first half of the Georgia at Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on March 1, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky's Eloy Vargas (30) was guarded by Georgia's Nemanja Djurisic before scoring in the first half of the Georgia at Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on March 1, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

More than once this season, Kentucky Coach John Calipari has noted that all is prelude to the NCAA Tournament. That priority doesn't change even though history can be made with a victory Sunday at Florida.

Calipari was shaking his head midway through a question Saturday about the importance of beating Florida to become only the third team since 1956 to go through a Southeastern Conference regular season unbeaten.

"My thing is you just want to compete," the UK coach said.

Calipari has backed up that approach with his practice plans. In recent practices, he's had the Cats' first-stringers work with a lineup that does not include national Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis. Just in case. It's a precautionary measure to help prepare for an NCAA Tournament game that might see Davis in foul trouble or otherwise not available.

If nothing else, the practices with Davis on the second team might lessen the shock associated with his absence.

"He told us he wanted us ready for every situation," Terrence Jones said of Calipari's thinking.

With Davis moving to the second unit, Jones becomes the starting center. Or backup Eloy Vargas takes Davis' spot with Jones remaining at power forward.

"We do it at least 20 minutes every practice," freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. "... We still do a real good job without him. (But) he makes us that much better."

Even if a no-Davis situation has not arisen, Kentucky already has benefited from the practices with a lineup missing the star freshman, Calipari said.

It gives Davis a chance to play power forward on the second unit, thus creating opportunities to shoot from the perimeter. Davis' perimeter jumper down the stretch helped hold off Vanderbilt last weekend.

Moving Davis to the second unit also puts an added onus on Jones, who said he's not yet fully comfortable as an emergency center.

"Gets him to block more shots and do more stuff," the UK coach said.

Calipari noted how the unexpected can arise in the NCAA Tournament. "Fate intervenes," he said.

For instance, Kentucky had prepared for West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone defense when the teams met in the 2010 East Region finals. But no one predicted that UK's inconsistent perimeter shooting would produce 20 straight three-point misses to start the game.

"Things are going to happen," Calipari said of the surprises that can ruin the best-laid plans. "... My thing is get the team as prepared as they can be. Then let it go. See what happens."

The NCAA Tournament remains almost two weeks away. Between now and then, Kentucky must play in the SEC Tournament, an event Calipari openly wishes didn't exist.

Teague welcomed the chance to play with this UK team as many as three times in New Orleans.

"We're excited about it," he said. "We're ready. We know we want to take advantage of our last few games (together)."

Calipari usually reminds his teams this time of year to savor — and extend — this one season together. "It's usually true," Jones said.

This time together could include a bit of history should Kentucky win at Florida. Since 1956, only the UK teams of 2002-03 and 1995-96 won every SEC regular-season game.

"That'd be a great accomplishment," Teague said. "... It's something you want to do. We never want to lose."

The Cats are already happy to note they've beaten every SEC team at least once. "We're proud of that," Teague said.

Added Jones: "It's a special thing. I think this is a special team with a lot of great players."

Kentucky being Kentucky, history is out of reach, Calipari said. As with the 51 straight home victories, the longest active streak in men's basketball, it pales next to the UK record of 129.

"Stuff here, there's no getting records," Calipari said. The goal becomes "trying to be the best team you can be. Trying to establish the excellence of the program."

National championships serve as a mark of distinction for Kentucky basketball. It's the reason for the practice time with Davis on the second unit and, as Calipari suggested, all preparation since October.

Toward that end, Calipari shifted recently to absolving the players of any potential responsibility for defeat. Players get the credit for victories. Calipari takes blame for a defeat, if it comes.

Calipari acknowledged that he's seen no sign of UK players feeling pressure to perform.

"Part of it is, two weeks ago, I began a mantra," he said. " 'You're doing fine. Just go play. You've done everything.' "

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