Eleven Southeastern Conference basketball teams have been given the chance to do something in one weekend that they haven't been able to do all year.
John Calipari's Wildcats roared through the SEC regular season with a 16-0 record, winning all but one by more than five points, and they will not be lacking for motivation at the league tournament in New Orleans. Three more victories would clinch the top NCAA tournament seed for Kentucky, which is 30-1 overall entering Friday's game against the winner of today's opening matchup between LSU and Arkansas.
"They would have gone 16-0 in every league this year," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. "That's how good they are."
Kentucky has won the past two SEC tournaments after experiencing an uncharacteristic five-year drought. The Wildcats won 10 of 13 league tournaments from 1992 to 2004, and their 27 all-time championships in the event -- they would have 28 but had to vacate their 1988 crown -- surpasses the 24 for the rest of the conference.
Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida each finished six games behind the Wildcats in this year's race, with Alabama seven games back, so it's not like there is much from January or February to build upon.
"Usually during the course of the year you have some games where you just don't play well, and I think the thing that's most impressive with them is that they have really played well from start to finish," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They haven't had games where they have been vulnerable, in my opinion. They have answers on all spots of the floor, both offensively and defensively."
Said Alabama coach Anthony Grant: "They're 16-0, so none of us have figured it out to this point."
The Wildcats set the tone for an impressive season when five different players led the team in scoring through the first five games. They do not have a player ranked among the top 200 nationally in scoring -- freshman forward Anthony Davis is 230th with 14.4 points a game -- yet they lead the SEC with 77.7 points a game and lead the nation in scoring margin at 19.2 points per contest.
Freshman guard Marquis Teague is not among the six players who have led the Wildcats in scoring, but he has been in double figures 15 times.
"The one advantage Kentucky has over everybody in the country is that there really isn't a guy on their team who doesn't score," Georgia's Mark Fox said. "You have to honor everybody, because they can all score and finish plays, and John has them in position to really complement each other well."
Scoring plays second fiddle to defense for the Wildcats, who lead the nation by holding foes to 36-percent shooting. The 6-foot-10 Davis is tops nationally with 4.7 blocks a game, as are the Wildcats as a team with 9.0 per contest.
Florida, the only other SEC team currently ranked, lost twice to the Wildcats by a combined 35 points.
"They just seem consumed with winning, and that's it," Donovan said. "It doesn't matter who scores or who plays the minutes. I'm sure [senior guard] Darius Miller wants to be out there 40 minutes a game, as any player does, but he has a better perspective of understanding the big picture.
"They are going after something that is bigger than their own individual statistics, and that to me is something that is impressive when you're looking at a lot of young kids."
Calipari insists this is the strongest SEC tournament of his three years as Wildcats coach, adding "a bunch of teams have a chance to win this thing." After two months of repeatedly getting flattened, Calipari's counterparts aren't as sure.
Asked how big a favorite Kentucky should be this week, LSU's Trent Johnson quipped, "I don't know. I think they might be an underdog. Jeez. C'mon, man."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...