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SEC title won't be easy with short turnaround

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MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 35.jpgBefore Kentucky can rightfully claim it has taken back the title of the nation's premier college basketball program, it must first find a way to reclaim the landscape of its own conference.

On Saturday vs. Tennessee (noon tipoff on CBS), the No. 2 UK men's basketball team will have a chance to win its 44th Southeastern Conference title and first since 2005. It's the longest stretch UK has gone without a regular-season conference title since going eight years without one from 1987 to 1994 (1988 title was vacated).

What does it all mean?

"Nothing, to be honest," said John Calipari, who will be looking for his first SEC title as UK's head coach.

Numbers-wise, it would give the Cats their 50th conference title overall (six came in the Southern Conference), second only to Kansas, which raked in its 53rd conference title Monday.

Kentucky could also claim a share of the conference title with just one more Vanderbilt loss. If Vandy loses one game and UK wins one more, the Cats would claim the outright championship.

That's great and all, Calipari said Friday, but it's just a small accomplishment in the broad scope of goals.

"This program has probably won that league X amount of times," Calipari said. "It's ridiculous. I've done it about 10 times (in other conferences) already."

For Calipari, a league crown seems trivial when the ultimate goal is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a national championship.

"I've always taken the approach that it's about the seed in the NCAA Tournament," Calipari said. "I know I probably offended people last night on the radio show about the tournament - and I'm not talking about the one in Nashville - but if you want me to be honest about how I think and what we're doing to prepare, that's what it is. The SEC Tournament is about our seed in the NCAA Tournament."

But before the Cats can think about the top seed in the 65-team tournament, they have to concentrate on assuring themselves of the East's No. 1 seed. One more victory will assure them of that, but it will be hard to come by Saturday against No. 19/17 Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena.

In addition to the hostile atmosphere, the pure talent of the Volunteers and the uncertainty of what defense Tennessee will play - last time in Lexington, Bruce Pearl instituted a new 3-2 zone after going primarily man-to-man most of the season - UK will have to deal with a brutally short turnaround.

The Thursday primetime-Saturday noon transition gave the Cats all of one day to prepare for the Volunteers.

"It's a quick turnaround," Calipari said. "It's like a back-to-back, so it will be interesting. We'll find out a little bit more about us."

Fortunately for UK, it's the first time this season the Cats have had to deal with the immediate turnaround. Only two other schools in the SEC, Georgia and South Carolina, have yet to endure with the one-day layoff, and both have a Thursday-Saturday schedule this week.

The Cats worked strictly on free throws, watched film and did not undergo a full practice Friday before hitting the road to Knoxville in order to rest their legs.

How they'll cope with the short turnaround and the potential to win an SEC championship remains to be seen.

"Hopefully we're good enough to win on the road in an environment like that which is going to be nuts," Calipari said. "I go back to Florida, it was nuts, South Carolina was nuts, Mississippi State was crazy, Vandy was crazy. This will be crazy and guess what? Georgia will be nuts. It's just how it is."

Welcome to the life of an SEC champion.

Championships

School

Conferences

53 (clinched 53 Monday)

Kansas

MVC, Big 8, Big 12

49 (going for 50 Saturday)

Kentucky

Southern, SEC

37

Penn

Ivy

34

North Carolina

Southern, ACC

32

Utah

Rocky Mountain, Mountain States, WAC, MWC


Cal wouldn't 'touch' NCAA tourney: Consider Calipari and a huge detractor of a possible NCAA Tournament expansion.

"I wouldn't touch it," Calipari said. "I wouldn't mess with it at all."

Talk of an NCAA Tournament change that would expand the current 65 teams to 96 teams has gained momentum in recent months. While the NCAA continues to explore the idea, the possibility of an expansion has become very real as the NCAA's current contract, an 11-year, $6 billion deal, is set to expire in 2013. The contract also has an opt-out clause after this season.

Advocates of the NCAA Tournament believe it would allow for more deserving teams, notably mid-major teams and middle-of-the-pack teams from major conferences, to get into the tournament, but Calipari isn't buying it. 

"Why do you think this is coming from the NCAA?" Calipari said. "Money, that's all it is. It's about the money."

Calipari spoke openly and candidly Friday about a possible tournament expansion, leaving no doubt as to where he stood on the issue. The first-year UK coach seemed to believe that adding more teams would only reward mediocrity.

"The issue becomes if you expand, let's just open it up to everybody," Calipari said. "Why are we doing this? 'Well, we need to get 12 out of one league.' Then play better. Finish higher. I just don't agree with it. Where it is right now, it's hard to get in, which makes it neat. It's hard to be seeded right, which makes it great."

Calipari said he has perspective given his previous coaching tenures in mid-major conference. He understands where those teams' arguments are coming from but believes adding three more play-in games to play the No. 1 seed in each region would solve the issue.

Adding an additional week to an already arduous end-of-the-season schedule would only jeopardize the student-athletes' educations, Calipari said.

"Why would you mess with something that's as big and rates as high as it does and as exciting as it is?" Calipari said. "Why add another week into the kids with school?"

The NCAA Tournament has undergone several expansions during its history, but that last major one came in 1985 when the field was increased from 32 teams to 64.

"There was not 360 teams then," Calipari said. "So it's at 64. I know they talk about football. There's 62 bowls and every team if you have a .500 record you're in a bowl. Well that's football."

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