(ST. LOUIS, Mo) – The airplane, the internet, and the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament are arguably three of the greatest inventions in the history of humankind. Nothing beats the speed of jet travel, the convenience of home shopping, and the excitement of BBN invading an unsuspecting post-season venue. Surprisingly, Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge one of these three brilliant cultural innovations. We all know Coach Cal is completely dependent on his private jet to check on his recruiting pipeline, and I’m sure he frequently googles his favorite Italian restaurants to fill his ever-expanding waistline. So why in the world is Coach Cal so slow to accept the obvious advantages to his Wildcats playing in conference post-season primetime?
“You know I can’t stand tournaments anyway,” Calipari said with his usual frowny face. “I’m not a big proponent of playing three or four games in a row at the end of the year. We already have a league champ. What are we doing this for? So that’s me. But our fans at Kentucky love this tournament. They love it. So, we go in and try to play as well as we can for our fans. But the only thing we’ll use this weekend for is to prepare us for the next weekend. That’s it. I’m not a big conference tournament guy. I never have been. I never was at Mass. I never was at Memphis. The next tournament is the real one.”
Hmmm? Maybe after his recent march through St. Looey, Coach Cal may consider changing his mind. His Kentucky team took advantage of a great opportunity to work on some glaring deficiencies, garner some remaining quality wins, and reestablish themselves on top of the SEC food chain—all while giving their adoring and well-deserving fans a chance to party, gloat, and blow their hard-earned vacation dollars underneath the Gateway Arch. In my mind, the SEC tournament is a win-win for Big Blue players and fans alike. Why Cal continues to denigrate something that is obviously beneficial and here to stay is a bit baffling. His outward negativity could have easily rubbed off on his impressionable young talent. But that’s just me.
The results, however, speak for themselves. Fortunately, Kentucky blew past a tired Georgia team 62-49 in the quarterfinals, blitzed by a resurgent Alabama team 86-63 with a three-point semifinal barrage, and took a hard-fought, well-contested 77-72 revenge victory in the finals on a Tennessee team –that had defeated them twice in the regular season–to win their 31st conference tournament trophy. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the tournament MVP, with Wenyen Gabriel, and Kevin Knox also selected for the All-Tournament Team.
For their efforts, the Wildcats were rewarded by the NCAA selection committee with an all expenses paid trip to Boise, Idaho as the 5th seed in the South Region. They’ll face Davidson in the first round. Kentucky was projected by many at the end of the regular season to already be a five seed, so someone please explain to me how winning the tournament championship of arguably the toughest conference in America could reap absolutely no benefit whatsoever.
“We’ll also use this tournament to see if we can improve our seed—which it never does,” Calipari had said presciently prior to the tournament. From that aspect, Coach was absolutely correct. However, in every other aspect, he was dead wrong. Kentucky improved significantly in their three-game stint in St. Looey. The Wildcats gained some much-needed confidence and momentum and subsequently set the stage in the only way they could for another improbable NCAA tournament run. This youngest of all Cal’s teams used the tournament to mature and hopefully, come of age. In addition, every single Cat fan, including myself, who made it to Scottrade Center also swears they had a fabulous time. Co-hosting radio, schmoozing with colleagues, and having my 15 seconds of fame behind the ESPN cameras–all while watching the team win another conference crown–is an experience I’ll forever cherish.
Here’s what I kept thinking on my eight-hour drive back from St. Looey through a blinding blizzard. If Kentucky makes it deep into this year’s March Madness bracket, they can thank the SEC tournament. Coach Cal will never admit it, BUT HE WAS WRONG regarding his negative tournament attitude. Phooey on him! He owes St. Looey an apology and a big debt of gratitude.
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