By LARRY VAUGHT
How often have you heard Kentucky coach John Calipari joke — or at least I think it is a joke — that he would just as soon skip the Southeastern Conference Tournament? It happens, and happens a lot.
But Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne left no doubt Monday about what winning the SEC regular-season title means to the Wildcats.
“For this group, I think it means a lot. I think these kids need to know that they are champions, that they are the gold standard of this conference, and not just by our eyes but everybody’s eyes,” Payne said. “That’s important.”
Not sure I can remember Calipari using the word “important” when it comes to winning a SEC title. Fans use it all the time and it’s now apparent winning the league is important to the players, too.
“That’s important for them to feel good about the work that they’ve put in, how hard we train, how hard we practice, how hard Coach Cal pushes these kids in order to be a great team, and the result of that is winning. So, as much as we can win, we want to win,” Payne said.
Calipari does refer to Kentucky as the “gold standard” of college basketball. Why is that important for players to feel that way?
“Because when we get into an NCAA tournament, every game is intense. Every game is every possession matters,” Payne said. “Defensively, the way that game went against Tennessee is how we have to play in that tournament, so that’s vital. That’s vital.”
Senior Reid Travis said a long season is “tough” mentally on players.
“You start building something special and you get to this point – but, this group everyone is excited about what we have on the horizon. For us it’s one game, one week at a time.,” Travis said. “I think that’s what really helps everybody is that we’re all in here trying to get better, working hard every day.
“So you can really get over that mental fatigue when everyone has so much excitement about what’s about to come for us in the next couple of games, next couple of months.”