SEC title not Cats' No. 1 goal

League tournament can make or break NCAA hopes for some

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari would be happy to celebrate a Southeastern Conference tournament title Sunday afternoon in Nashville, but he admits his mind wouldn't be on the trophy.

Not with the NCAA tournament selection show just a couple of hours away.

"We're playing for a seed. That's what we're playing for," Calipari said. "Now, we'd like to win this tournament, but it's not the end-all for us. Our whole goal is that seed, and if we lose our first game, we're not going to be a No. 1 seed. If we win the first and lose the second, then I think we've done enough to get that 1 seed."

The Wildcats won 10 of 13 SEC tournaments from 1992 to 2004 but none since, as Florida took three straight before Georgia won in '08 and Mississippi State last year. Kentucky has 25 SEC tournament titles -- its 1988 crown had to be vacated as a result of NCAA sanctions -- while the rest of the league has combined for 24.

Kentucky (29-2, 14-2) is the decided favorite this week at Bridgestone Arena, with Vanderbilt (23-7, 12-4) and Tennessee (23-7, 11-5) the chief challengers. The Commodores and Vols are secure in the NCAA tournament landscape but have endured lengthy droughts in this event.

Tennessee hasn't won the SEC tournament since 1979, which followed a 26-year run in which it wasn't held, while Vandy's last title occurred in 1951.

"We would like to play well, and we would like to be playing on Sunday with a chance to win the tournament," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. "It means a great deal to us regardless of how it might or might not affect our seeding for the NCAA tournament. If it's on our schedule, then we want to win."

Florida (20-11, 9-7) could use a first-round win over Auburn on Thursday night to solidify its NCAA prospects, but the teams needing to make the most noise Friday and Saturday to receive good news Sunday are Mississippi State (21-10, 9-7) and Ole Miss (21-9, 9-7). MSU's Bulldogs would enhance their chances by facing and beating Florida and Vanderbilt, while the Rebels are not hiding the fact they need Tennessee to defeat LSU on Thursday.

In the regular season, Ole Miss did not defeat a single SEC team that finished with a winning league mark.

"If we were to play Tennessee, should they beat LSU, that would obviously give us a quality win if we were able to win that game," Rebels assistant Owen Miller said. "This time of year, that's what you're looking for."

There is no shortage of storylines for Thursday's opening round.

Should Alabama defeat South Carolina in the tournament's first game, the Gamecocks would finish a once-promising season that included a win over Kentucky with a losing record. Should Arkansas beat Georgia, the Bulldogs would have gone all season without a win outside the Peach State. And if Auburn loses, will Tigers coach Jeff Lebo return for a seventh season and a first inside the new Auburn Arena?

Yet for Calipari, it's all about a fourth NCAA tournament No. 1 seed at a third school, having accomplished it with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2006 and '08.

"When I was at Memphis, we weren't playing for the league championship tournament," he said. "We were playing for that seed, and it was a little different there than it is here. If we lost any game, they would have made us an 8 seed.

"Here at least you can lose a game or two and you're fine."