LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — The Southeastern Conference race came down to Auburn and Tennessee and John Calipari expects those two teams to be among the favorites when the league tournament begins Wednesday in Saint Louis.
The Kentucky coach has the Volunteers and the Tigers tabbed as the favorites, although he added the league is competitive from top to bottom and could make for an exciting five-day event.
“I would say the advantage would go both to Auburn and Tennessee,” Calipari said Monday during the league teleconference. “They won the league. Tennessee lost their first two (league) games and we had them down 10 or 12 in the first half of their third game (in Knoxville).
“Rick Barnes got that team right and from that point on, you know, what their record is. I think both Tennessee and Auburn will have the advantage, but the rest of us, you know, you’re just going to fight like heck and see what happens.”
Although Auburn and Tennessee shared the regular-season title, Calipari wouldn’t be surprised if another league member captures the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“Even if I’m Mississippi right now, knowing how they played against us, knowing how those guards will take 30 threes – I’m thinking we’ve got a chance,” he said. “If I’m Vanderbilt, if I’m Georgia, if I’m South Carolina – Mississippi State has played well all year. You’re looking up and down the line, I think all 14 teams think and their fans — we can make a run. So, I’m going to be surprised if there are not a lot of fans from a lot of schools not just Kentucky at this tournament.”
Thanks to Arkansas’ loss to Missouri last weekend, the Wildcats (21-10) received a double-bye and open play in the tournament at 3:30 p.m. in the quarterfinals Friday against Missouri, Georgia or Vanderbilt.
Kentucky had a four-game winning streak snapped in an 80-67 loss to Florida last weekend in Gainesville, giving the Gators a rare sweep of the Wildcats. Tennessee also swept the Wildcats this season, while Auburn defeated Kentucky 76-66 on Feb. 14, the last of four consecutive losses. Calipari blamed the loss to Florida on bad preparation.
“I didn’t scrimmage the week before Florida. Basically, it was a quick turn,” Calipari said. “Prior to that, we were scrimmaging every chance we could, and I made a decision. Every once in a while my decisions aren’t right, few and far between, but there are times they’re not right, and this is probably one of them. It took an edge off some guys that we needed to compete and have more of a competitive spirit.”
Calipari said the league’s balance is credited to the overall improvement of the players in the conference.
“I know that coaches can make teams more organized and can do those kinds of things,” he said. “What’s happened is we have gotten better and better players top to bottom. If you think it’s solely because of a coach then you don’t know this profession.
“This thing is about getting really good players to play together and care about winning. Bottom line. Not brain surgery. We’ve got coaches who are experienced at this and then we’ve gotten better players. The talent that’s been added to this league in the last couple of years has been phenomenal.”
For the first time in history, the tournament will be played in Saint Louis and expects the fans to travel well this weekend.
“We played in the NCAA Tournament there and it is a great place for a tournament,” he said. “I’m telling you. It is a great place for a tournament. I think it’ll be fine. Our fans I would expect them – it’s much easier, obviously, Atlanta and Nashville for our fans and maybe a lot of our league fans.”
Tops in attendance
For the 20th time in the past 23 years and third straight season, Kentucky led the nation in home attendance this year.
Kentucky averaged 21,875 fans per game and have averaged more than 20,000 fans in seven of Calipari’s nine seasons with the Wildcats. The team’s top draw was 24,293 on Jan. 20 against Florida and topped the 23,000 mark five times.
Overall, 393,743 fans attended 18 home games this year at Rupp Arena. Since Rupp Arena opened during the 1976-77 season, Kentucky has ranked first or second in home attendance for the last 41 years.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.