There hasn’t been a team all season that could stop UK’s Anthony Davis, the unquestioned Player of the Year and a lock for the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
NEW ORLEANS — Three years into coach John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, the Wildcats are once again the unquestioned kings of the Southeastern Conference.
The No. 1-ranked Wildcats open this week’s SEC Tournament in New Orleans with a swagger reminiscent of the 1990s, when they won seven of eight tournament championships. They were so dominant the event was jokingly referred to as the Kentucky Invitational.
“It’s another time to get a championship,” Kentucky guard Darius Miller said. “Hopefully we can continue the run that we’ve had, and hopefully it can give us a little experience for the (NCAA) Tournament.”
There’s a good reason the Wildcats’ moxie has returned.
Kentucky boasts a roster of potential future NBA players and a 30-1 record that includes the first 16-0 SEC slate for any program since the Wildcats accomplished the feat in 2003. They haven’t lost in nearly three months and have arguably the nation’s best player in freshman Anthony Davis, a 6-foot-10 forward who is averaging 14.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and is the nation’s leading shot-blocker with 4.7 per game.
So far, the rest of the SEC hasn’t had an answer.
There’s even a little awe.
“They just seem consumed about winning, and that is it,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Whatever they’ve got to do to win, regardless of who scores and who plays the minutes … They are going after something that’s bigger than their own individual statistics.”
Listening to the rest of the league, it’s easy to get the feeling that everyone else is playing for second place. Calipari doesn’t share that sentiment, even though Kentucky is trying to win its third straight SEC tournament.
“We’re talking about a bunch of teams that have a chance to win this thing,” Calipari said.
The top four seeds — Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida — all receive first-round byes in the 12-team tournament, which starts today.
Though the Wildcats supply the tournament’s star power, there is drama in the middle of the pack. Several teams need a strong showing to solidify their NCAA tournament resumes.
Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Mississippi are all in various stages of uncertainty as the league hopes to place six teams in the tournament for the first time since 2008.
The Crimson Tide appear to have the best current case of the bubble teams, with a 20-10 record, 9-7 SEC mark and the nation’s No. 32 RPI, according to the NCAA’s latest report Monday.
The fifth-seeded Tide open with No. 12 seed South Carolina today. The Gamecocks won the only meeting between the two teams — 56-54 in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 25.
That loss has given Alabama a little extra incentive to stay focused and not take South Carolina lightly.
“Any given night in this league, no matter where you play, you can lose to anybody,” Alabama guard Andrew Steele said. “I think that was the lesson that we learned.”
Tennessee has one of the nation’s most bizarre resumés. The second-seeded Volunteers started terribly under first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin in non-conference play. The Volunteers had to overcome a four-game losing streak that included embarrassing losses to Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston.
But once freshman forward Jarnell Stokes was added to the lineup in the second semester, Tennessee improved quickly — finishing 10-6 in SEC play by winning eight of its last nine games.
Mississippi State’s NCAA resumé looked fine until a surprising five-game losing streak in February. The Bulldogs have won two straight to right the ship and are the last team not named Kentucky to win the tournament in 2009.
Ole Miss is trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, which is the league’s longest drought. The Rebels likely need a deep run to merit much consideration.
While the rest of the league beats itself up, Kentucky heads into the tournament with little pressure. The Wildcats almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens this week.
Calipari has been a vocal opponent of conference tournaments in the past, questioning their necessity. But he certainly has had plenty of success in them, winning six straight dating back to his time with Memphis in Conference USA.
He should have plenty of support in his attempt to win another.
Kentucky’s fans are famous for overtaking any SEC Tournament site with thousands in attendance and everyone is expecting the same in New Orleans.
“They can’t get tickets to our building, and this is their chance,” Calipari said of Kentucky fans. “And so you almost feel an obligation — let’s play well.”
Despite the long odds, the rest of the league is hoping for a little spring magic.
“It’s March, so anything can happen,” LSU’s Justin Hamilton said. “We know that coming into this, no matter what seed you are, you still have to play your best game to beat the opponent.”
UGA OPENS WITH MISSISSIPPI STATE IN NEW ORLEANS:
NEW ORLEANS — Georgia opens play in the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament today in the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans.
The Bulldogs, as the No. 11 seed, will play No. 6 seed Mississippi State (21-10, 8-8 SEC) in the final game of the evening session at approximately 9 p.m.
The Bulldogs (14-16, 5-11 SEC) ended the regular season victorious by defeating South Carolina, 67-55, in Athens last Saturday. As he has for much of the homestretch of this season, senior guard Gerald Robinson paced Georgia as its only double-digit scorer with 23 points. Ten other Bulldogs, however, rang the bell on Senior Day.
These two teams met just once in the regular season. Visiting Georgia, behind 20 points from freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and some clutch play from Robinson, rallied to defeat then-nationally ranked MSU, 70-68, in overtime in Starkville on Feb. 11. Robinson scored 10 of his 13 points in the final 28 seconds of regulation and the extra period. The last of Caldwell-Pope’s points, came on a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:01 left in overtime. The win was Georgia’s first against a Top 25 opponent on the road since 2004.
Caldwell-Pope was named this week to the 2012 SEC All-Freshman team this week as voted by the league’s 12 head coaches. The Greenville native has led the Bulldogs in scoring for much of the season and is currently tops in steals, minutes, 3-pointers and defensive rebounds. He enters this tournament with 405 points this season, already the fifth-highest total by a freshman in UGA history. Trey Thompkins, who is now with the Sacramento Kings in the NBA, was Georgia’s Freshman All-SEC honoree in his rookie season of 2009.
Should the Bulldogs be fortunate enough to advance, they’ll play third-seeded Vanderbilt in the second round Friday at 9 p.m.
Vandy took both games of the regular-season series between the two teams, winning in Nashville, 77-66, and taking the rematch in Athens, 61-52. Vandy is the No. 3 seed and has a first-round bye.