By LARRY VAUGHT
John Calipari has enough worries without trying to speculate on what kind of opportunity the Southeastern Conference has to validate itself as a legitimate basketball conference during the Big 12-SEC Challenge Saturday.
The true validation comes in March — and last year the SEC had three teams in the Elite Eight.
“Let me tell you after the games are done. I wouldn’t know yet. I mean, I don’t think this does anything to hurt what’s happening in our league,” Calipari said Thursday on the SEC coaches’ teleconference. “The only thing that kind of gets me is, we have some teams lose a couple games and all of a sudden you start dropping like a rock – not just us. In other leagues, you lose two or three in a row, or two in a row, and it doesn’t really affect you.
“That’s the dregs from the old SEC. That’s just the dregs. I mean, it’s just not believable. Like, we lose to South Carolina. Yeah, but they just went to Florida and won. Wait a minute, what? We got really good teams in this league right now, with really good coaches, and dudes are performing. There are no bad teams in this league. None.
“(South Carolina coach) Frank (Martin) and I were talking the other day, and he said to me, ‘Cal, there is no game where you walk in and say, OK, we can play bad and still win this.’ No, you’re losing. We’re one of those teams, we’re a little bit behind, whether it be execution, toughness, some of the stuff you have to have where we’re behind, but we’re trying to figure things out. We’ll see where it goes.”
Calipari is 1-1 against West Virginia and coach Bob Huggins at UK. the Cats embarrassed West Virginia 78-39 in the 2015 Sweet 16 after West Virginia’s Daxter Miles “guaranteed” his team would win — a statement that infuriated many Kentucky players. Kentucky led 44-18 at halftime.
But the 2018 Elite Eight, West Virginia likely cost UK a national championship when it beat UK 73-66 in Syracuse. That’s the game it took UK more than 36 minutes to make a 3-pointer against West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone defense. Kentucky missed its first 20 3-point shots before finishing 4-for-32 from 3-point range.
Calipari said it would be foolish to read too much into which conference has more wins in Saturday’s challenge.
“I don’t think it affects because some of it is where you’re playing games, the Big 12 is really good, what are the matchups? I don’t think it – there could be matchups that are in our favor, it doesn’t mean the Big 12 is not strong. There could be a bunch of them in their favor because of who is on the court, healthy teams and all that other stuff,” Calipari said. “Look, both leagues are really strong this year. I would say, right now when you look at RPI and all the other things, probably the best two leagues.
“We’re playing this thing, it’s great for TV and all those things, it comes in the middle of our league play, I’m not sure how it will play out. Let’s see how the games go and let’s see how the next league games go for everybody. But you know what, it’s next on the schedule.
“We probably have the challenge of challenges, playing who we’re playing, and how they’re playing, on their court where they just don’t lose. I’m excited for the challenge and I’m excited for our team to see where we are right now. And thank goodness we’re still in January, we still have a solid month-and-a-half to get this thing right.”