The first 1,000 fans and 500 students at Memorial Gymnasium on Thursday for Kentucky and Vanderbilt’s Southeastern Conference opener will receive a commemorative SEC Tournament championship ring to honor last year’s team.
It’s a fitting symbolization and gesture to bid adieu to a season ago as both teams begin anew this year. Neither looks anything like they did last year, nor does the SEC for that matter.
After Kentucky won the national championship for the league in 2012 and Florida made it to the Elite Eight, it has undoubtedly been a tough nonconference slate for the SEC in 2012-13.
Entering this week’s league games, only two teams – Florida and Missouri – are ranked in the two major polls, and more troublesome, those two teams are the only two SEC teams in the RPI’s top 50, which the NCAA takes into consideration when it draws up its NCAA Tournament bracket in March.
The league faced the unenviable task of replacing three head coaches, 15 draft picks and a wealth of seniors, but the conference hoped to fare better than what it has so far. Only nine wins against top-50 RPI opponents and 20 losses to teams ranked 200th or worse says everything one needs to know about the conference’s struggles in the first half of the season.
Speaking on the SEC coaches’ teleconference on Monday, the league’s coaches said it would be disservice to the conference to judge its credentials after just a couple months of the season. Florida head coach Billy Donovan pointed to last year’s Tennessee team, which started the year 8-10 but nearly made the NCAA Tournament down the stretch, as proof that it’s too early to judge.
“When you all of a sudden start to thrust new guys into new roles against pretty good teams or just OK teams, you’re always going to be vulnerable to a couple of losses,” Donovan said. “So what ends up happening is you get labeled in November and December as the league’s not very good, the league’s down, the league does not have a strong reputation and vice versa.
What: UK (9-4) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6)
When: Thursday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Memorial Gymnasium (14,316)
Game notes: UK | Vanderbilt
Video interviews: Cal, Goodwin, Poythress and Mays
Video: Stallings says UK is still the hunted
Head coach: Kevin Stallings (267-165 at Vanderbilt)
Player to watch: Kedren Johnson (16.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists)
Series history: UK leads 136-45
Last meeting: Vandy won 71-64 in 2012 SEC Tournament championship
“I think it’s unfair where all of a sudden a league gets to March and maybe two teams really go deep in March and now the league is much better than it was. I think there’s got to be some level of balance. For some teams, when you look back and a team’s on the bubble, so to speak, you say, “Well, back in November they lost to this team; they can’t be good.” Well, it’s four months from that game.”
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin, one of the new head coaches in the league, agreed with Donovan. He said that because of the one-and-done rule and the mass exodus of players that high-major programs have to deal with every year – most notably UK – it takes time for teams to develop.
“A lot of those lower- and mid-major schools, they have kids that stay three, four, five years, so there is a situation some time where in November you’ve got a team that’s full of freshmen playing against a team that’s full of seniors,” Martin said. “That’s a problem.”
If anyone knows about replacing its stars and the transition process that comes with it, it’s Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Sans Kyle Wiltjer, UK obviously lost every one of its major contributors from its national title season from a year ago, but Vanderbilt lost just as much. After enjoying several seasons of the same core group, head coach Kevin Stallings lost his top six scorers and 88 percent of his scoring output.
Replacing all that talent hasn’t been easy, a big reason why the Commodores are 6-6 on the season while averaging less than 60 points per game.
Perhaps it’s fitting that two teams that have dealt with so much turnover will open their league schedules against each other. If nothing else, the meeting of last year’s regular-season and tournament champions with entirely different rosters speaks volume to how open this year’s league race could be.
Sure, Florida and Missouri look to be the early favorites, but no one appears to be a dominant force like Kentucky was a year ago.
“You can say, ‘Well, you don’t have this and you don’t have that.’ Well, we’re getting in league play and it’s all going to shake out who’s who,” John Calipari said.
Coach Cal said he hasn’t paid much attention to the league’s struggles simply because he’s not watching other teams’ scores. His focus has been elsewhere.
After nearly a month of Camp Cal in which the players have had no class, no practice restrictions and extra time together, Calipari is eager to see the improvement of his team. The Cats, who have been subjected to devices that measure their heart rate, caloric expenditure and exertion, said there is no doubt his squad is a better team than it was a month ago.
“I think we’re a lot better because the first thing that we learned to do was to compete and that’s what we’ve been doing a lot lately,” freshman guard Archie Goodwin said. “After that it’s just a matter of people working on individual skill sets and us all coming together, and we’ve been doing a lot for the past three weeks, so it’s paying off for us.”
Improvement in practice is one thing, though, and on-court results are another. Calipari has said all along that it will take time to see the progress from the last few weeks, but he’s hoping that the start of conference play will signal the start of some change for his 9-4 Wildcats.
“It has to carry over to the basketball court,” Coach Cal said. “Their confidence is going to come from demonstrated performance – going on the basketball court and doing it.”
Calipari said his team is now bigger and stronger from being able to eat more over the break and lifting weights, and he likes the team chemistry now that the players have had to spend time together day in and day out, especially from point guard Ryan Harrow.
“Ryan is now around his team 24 hours a day and he’s able to really connect with them and now is able to really lead,” Calipari said. “But you’ve got to be around them, you’ve got to be with them. They’ve got to know that, and he’s doing it.”
How the improvement and progress holds up over the 18-game SEC schedule – a new season, if you will – remains to be seen. But with the current struggles the league has gone through and the parity across the league, even a so-far inconsistent Kentucky team has a great shot at another SEC title.
“We just went through a great month of training,” Calipari said. “Now you go on the court and show what you worked on. There’s going to be bumps in the road. There’s going to be ups and downs. … But the whole point is you’ve got a great foundation now to fight, to battle, to know that you can play with anybody if you choose to.”
Poythress coming home
If Coach Cal’s methods of heart monitors, individual workouts and extra attention hasn’t been enough to induce more effort from Alex Poythress, perhaps his return home Thursday will be the key.
Poythress, the focal point of Calipari’s focus on exerting more effort, will play just an hour south of his hometown of Clarksville, Tenn., when UK plays Vanderbilt on Thursday.
“I feel like he’s going to be ready for this game because a lot of people are going to be rooting against him, especially since it’s where he’s from,” Goodwin said. “I know it’s a game he’s really looking forward to.”
Poythress said he expects plenty of friends and family members to be in attendance, but no one knows how the freshman forward will react to the homecoming.
“If it’s an effort thing, he can do as much as he wants,” Calipari said. “Just go until you pass out.”
Cal: UK isn’t a Final Four team yet
The parity of college basketball this year is quite clear.
Other than a handful of teams like Louisville, Duke and Michigan, there doesn’t appear to be a runaway favorite like there was last year with Kentucky. Coach Cal likes those three teams the best, but he said there are as many as 30-40 teams that could make a run at the Final Four this season.
“And I don’t think there’s any clear-cut national champion winner,” Calipari said.
Kentucky is not one of those 30-40 teams right now, he said.
“At this point, probably not,” Calipari said. “But by March, that’s what our plan would be.”
The fact that the field is so wide open right now does encourage Calipari. He has said all along that he just wants to be in the conversation by the end of the year, and he believes this team can still do that.
“It’s great for all of us out there,” Coach Cal said. “OK, who’s going to have their team playing the best in March? Because that’s what it’ll be about. … It feels right now like it was a couple years ago (when we made it to the Final Four in 2011).”