With Kentucky three games behind Florida in the Southeastern Conference's East Division basketball race, coach John Calipari insists his Wildcats are playing for NCAA tournament seeding and not any league hardware.
That may sound like sour grapes, but Calipari clung to the same message last year when Kentucky blistered the SEC with a 14-2 league mark.
"John has obviously had a lot of success in the leagues he has been in, and he's also had a lot of success in the NCAA tournament," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Whatever philosophy he has and whatever he is doing as a coach has worked really, really well for his teams, and whatever that philosophy he is getting across to his team is something he probably believes in strongly.
"For us, we're in the middle of a league race, and that's important right now. And we're not really talking about that as much as we are getting prepared to play LSU on Sunday."
Calipari guided Massachusetts to the 1996 Final Four and Memphis to the 2008 Final Four, although the NCAA has since vacated both of those appearances. His first Kentucky team won 35 games and reached last year's Elite Eight, where the Wildcats were bounced in an upset loss to West Virginia.
Both of his teams in Lexington have been overflowing with talented freshmen, but Calipari doesn't mind openly discussing March Madness one or even two months early. The Wildcats improved to 18-7 overall and 6-5 in the SEC with Tuesday night's 85-79 win over Mississippi State at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky is 30-0 under Calipari.
"Where our RPI and strength of schedule is, all we have to do is take care of business and we are fine," Calipari said. "When we were 5-5 in our league, we were number 14 in the RPI. Think about that."
Florida, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the SEC's lone representatives in the Associated Press poll and the biggest league certainties for NCAA play. Yet while Calipari continues to discuss NCAA seeding, Donovan and Commodores coach Kevin Stallings are going elsewhere for motivation.
"John is right in that all of us are, in the grand scheme of things, trying to get the best seed that we can," Stallings said. "At the same time, the better seed you get in the conference tournament, the better it allows you to do in the conference tournament and also improves your opportunity to get a better seed for the NCAA tournament. Our biggest motivation is that next game, and you can't do anything more than trying to get ready to play the next game as well as you can."
Said Donovan: "When you start talking weeks down the road and you don't take care and prepare for today, I don't know if you're going to be prepared later on. What we've tried to do is just kind of go one game at a time and one day at a time in terms of what is in front of us right now and what do we need to get done today."
Stallings and Donovan said they have not discussed NCAA tournament seeding at all with their players this season.
"The last two times we've been a 4 seed, we've gotten beat in the first round," Stallings said. "The two times before that we were a 6 seed, and we got to the Sweet 16, so seeding might be overrated sometimes, too. All we can do is worry about the next game, and if you do a good enough job, you're probably going to get a pretty good seed."