Kentucky has won 25 SEC tournament titles, but coach John Calipari isn’t so much concerned with adding to that already impressive total this weekend.
With their coach eying a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the second-ranked Wildcats take on Alabama in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament in Nashville on Friday.
Despite dominating the SEC tournament in previous years—Alabama is second with only six titles—Kentucky (29-2) last won it in 2004. While he recognizes the significance of winning the tournament, Calipari, in his first season at Kentucky, sees this weekend as more of a stepping stone to the NCAA tournament.
“Well if you’re going to be in a tournament, you want to win it,” Calipari said. “But our whole thing is that it’s bigger and it’s more important than winning. We’ve got to get ourselves prepared for that next weekend and that’s what we’ll do. Basically everything we do is based on how and where we finish the season.”
The Wildcats closed the regular season with a 74-66 win over Florida on Sunday. The Gators cut an 18-point lead to three midway through the second half, but Kentucky held on. Eric Bledsoe and Darius Miller each scored 14 points to lead five players in double figures.
“I am just glad that it is over. I just wanted it to end,” Calipari said of the regular season. “I have never coached a team that worried about a conference championship or a tournament championship.”
Postseason play may be a test for the very young Wildcats, but so far freshman John Wall, the SEC player of the year, and DeMarcus Cousins, the SEC freshman of the year, have lived up to the high expectations placed upon them. Wall scored 11 points and added eight assists in Sunday’s win over Florida and he dominated Alabama in a 66-55 win Feb. 9, scoring 22 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
Patrick Patterson is one of only a few Kentucky players with tournament experience. The junior, who is expected to enter the NBA draft after the season and receive his degree this spring, averaged 15.0 points in the two SEC tournament games last season. Kentucky finished fourth in the East last season and was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
“Cal says we need two (wins), but we want to win three,” Patterson said. “We want to win the championship and have that as an accomplishment under our belts that we can look back on and say ‘We did that.’”
Including February’s victory, the Wildcats have won four straight over Alabama, including a 79-67 tournament victory in 2007. They are looking to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2006.
The Crimson Tide (17-14) advanced to the quarterfinals following a 68-63 win over South Carolina on Thursday. Alabama rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half, taking the lead on Mikhail Torrance’s 9-foot jumper with 57 seconds remaining. Torrance finished with 17 points for Alabama’s third straight win, and he’s averaged 18.4 points in his last five games.
“Every game brings difference challenges, different preparation,” first-year coach Anthony Grant said. “The preparation for our next game will begin once we get back to the hotel. But for right now, I think our guys are going to enjoy this victory.”
Alabama hasn’t reached the semifinals since 2002.