Five-Year Drought in UK's rearview mirror


Published: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 12:30 a.m.

NEW ORLEANS — It wasn't that long ago but it seems like it. Kentucky fans don't like to talk about it, the five-year black hole for their basketball program.

Before the chants changed from “Go Big Blue” to “Go Home Blue,” the Wildcats weren't just the dominant team in the league, they owned the SEC Tournament the way Lance Armstrong owned yellow jerseys. From 1992-2004, Kentucky won 10 SEC Tournament titles. They started referring to the site of many of those wins as “Cat-lanta,” and we started calling the tournament the “Kentucky Invitational.”




Then came 2005, when Florida stunned the 'Cats in the final. The Gators won the next two as well. Then Georgia won the 2008 tornado tourney and Mississippi State the next one.

Five years seemed like 500. Would they ever be whole again?

John Calipari restored order for Kentucky by winning the last two SEC Tournaments. And his team is the prohibitive favorite to win a third this weekend.

Calipari has won six straight conference tournaments (four at Memphis)? Is it preparation or motivation or strategy?

Nah.

“Probably because I don't care about them,” Calipari said. “(The players) know that. They know it's no big deal.”

Some of the teams in New Orleans this week are on edge because they are on the bubble. Some, like Florida, want to gain some positive momentum and improve their NCAA seed. Calipari? He just wants it to be next week.

Maybe that is why Kentucky has been 6-0 the last two years of this tournament after going 6-5 during the Five-Year Drought.

Of course, talent has a lot to do with it, and the team Calipari is bringing to the New Orleans Arena is his most talented yet when you combine pure skill with basketball smarts.

The Wildcats ran through the league to win all 16 games. The average margin of victory in its SEC games was 17 points. Only four teams lost to the Wildcats by single digits.

“They haven't had games where they've been vulnerable,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “They seem consumed about winning and that is it. They are going after something other than their individual statistics.”

Which sounds very much like Donovan's 2007 team. That team was determined to repeat its success from the previous year when it won a national title. The SEC Tournament opponents were mere nuisances, worn-down speed bumps they hardly noticed on the drive to a second straight NCAA crown.

But even if this seems like a foregone conclusion that Kentucky will be lifting the pyramid-shaped trophy on Sunday afternoon, they are still going to play the thing over the next four days.

As long as they are here, can one of the 11 teams knock off the Wildcats?

Probably not. But there are some who have better chances than others.

Donovan said Sunday a physical team like Vanderbilt would have the best shot of knocking off Kentucky. The Commodores start four seniors. And both of Vandy's losses to UK were in single digits.

One problem. Kevin Stallings is awful in this tournament. Vanderbilt has never reached the tournament final, and the Commodores are 9-12 under Stallings.

How about Tennessee? The Vols have two things going for them in New Orleans — they have won eight of nine and need to keep it going to get into the Big Dance. But one reason the Vols are on a hot streak — they haven't played Kentucky during those nine games. When they did play Kentucky early in the season, Tennessee lost by three in Knoxville … then by 25 just 2 weeks later.

That was a home game for the Wildcats. So will this tournament. LSU's Justin Hamilton said Wednesday, “We hope we'll have a home crowd like we do at (home).”

Not likely. The postseason is the equivalent of a bowl trip for Kentucky fans.

Alabama lost its only game against Kentucky by six. But the Tide will have to get through South Carolina today and Florida on Friday to get a shot at the 'Cats. They'd be playing their third game in three days.

“We're only promised one game,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant.

Florida? The Gators are coming in on a three-game losing streak and lost to UK by a combined 35 points.

Still, it's March and as Hamilton said Wednesday, “Anything can happen.”

That's why we — and 11 other teams — are here.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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