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Cal, Cats balance priorities in SEC Tournament

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Darius Miller was named MVP of the 2011 SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller was named MVP of the 2011 SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"The SEC Tournament, to me, is one of the most special times of the year. I love the SEC Tournament."

Those are not the words of John Calipari.

Not even close.

That quote can in fact be attributed to Matthew Mitchell, Calipari's head coaching counterpart with the Kentucky women's basketball team, which just concluded its own SEC Tournament with a semifinal loss to LSU this past weekend.

These are Coach Cal's thoughts on the subject.

"It doesn't really prepare you for anything," Calipari said. "We just played a whole league schedule. And now, for our league especially, it has no bearing on seeding. Proved it last year. So why are we playing it?"

As No. 1 UK (30-1, 16-0 SEC) prepares to open play in New Orleans at 1 p.m. on Friday against either LSU or Arkansas in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, Calipari has long since felt that way. Dating back to his time at Memphis and Massachusetts, Calipari has wondered aloud - and at times very loudly - why such tournaments are even played, and his feelings were only reinforced by what happened a season ago.

UK blitzed through the 2011 tournament, winning three games by an average of 13 points, including a victory in the final over regular-season champion Florida. The Cats thought they had significantly strengthened their position on Selection Sunday, only to be handed a No. 4 seed in the same bracket as top overall seed Ohio State, whom the Wildcats of course ended up defeating en route to a berth in the Final Four.

Calipari may be staunchly opposed to the tournament, but he will be hard-pressed to temper the excitement of his players. For many of the Wildcats, this is their first - and perhaps only - opportunity to play college basketball in March.

"We're glad that we get more time to play with each other," point guard Marquis Teague said of the SEC Tournament. "Any chance to play basketball, we want to play. We're excited about it and we're ready to play."

Darius Miller is on the other end of the spectrum. While his young teammates aren't sure what they'll be getting into, the senior guard has already played in eight conference tournament games. Even so, he is ready to hit the floor for the SEC Tournament, but looks at it as an opportunity to prepare for what comes after it more than anything else.

"It's another chance to win a championship," Miller said. "I feel like it just can get us prepared going into the next tournament. Hopefully we can get some experience."

Miller put together arguably his best three games as a Wildcat in last year's SEC run, earning Most Valuable Player honors in the tournament. He and the team used the conference tournament as a springboard into even bigger things in the 2011 NCAA Tournament and the recently named SEC Sixth Man of the Year hopes they can do the same in 2012.

"It's all quick turnarounds against talented teams, very good teams," Miller said. "It's going to be great competition and just the whole tournament atmosphere can hopefully get us ready for the next one."

Calipari, though, isn't so sure about that notion. Playing three games in as many days is unique to the conference tournament, whereas the NCAA Tournament affords at least a one-day break between games.

"Three games in three days is like nothing," Calipari said. "It's like playing in Maui - wears you out and now you've got to make a 7,000-(mile) trek back home. What's it get? Well, it gets you TV. We've got all the TV we need. We don't need any TV, none of that. But we'll be there."

Considering Calipari's disdain for conference tournaments, one would think his teams would not fare all that well in them, but that couldn't be further from the truth. At Memphis and now Kentucky, Calipari-coached teams have won six-straight conference tournament crowns. He's not going to be using the same approach for the NCAA Tournament anytime soon, but maybe there's something to the way he views the prelude to the Big Dance.

"I could care less," Calipari said. "They know that. We're trying to get better. They go in and know it's not a big deal, let's just go in and play and they end up winning them. It's not the formula I would say anybody else would use, but it's what I've used."

For all his bluster about not caring about an event Kentucky has won 27 times, there is one mitigating factor that tempers his distaste and compels him to want to win.

"The only thing here that's different is our fans take their vacation money, rent money, cigarette money and they go to these tournaments," Calipari said. "They can't get tickets to our building and this is their chance, and so you almost feel an obligation (to) play well. You have an obligation."

Whether Calipari feels that way or not, his team is likely to want to win anyway. The Cats' M.O. all season has been to do whatever it takes to pull out victories, so why would it be any different with a nice big trophy on the line?

The Cats have a clear goal, and it's to win every game the rest of the way, and it just so happens the SEC Tournament is the first thing in their way.

"We're just trying to win nine straight games," Doron Lamb said.

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