The new-look SEC handed its championship trophy to the same old crew. Having won 31 of these league tournaments, you’d think Kentucky would have the receiving part down pat. Trouble was, the same old Wildcats were neither the same nor old.
Tradition holds that team captains take the trophy. Said Kentucky coach John Calipari: “I asked, ‘Who the heck are our captains?’ I thought (assistant coach) Kenny Payne was our captain. We’re so young. Captains? I don’t think we even named any.”
Kentucky beat Tennessee 77-72 in a cracking good game on a snowy – yes, it snowed – Sunday to take the title. Not so long ago, Calipari said he asked assistant athletic director Dwayne Peevey, “Does every team get to go to the SEC tournament?”
His almost-all-freshman roster had lost four in a row to fall to 6-7 in league play, and direction was conspicuous in its absence. According to Calipari, one of his players texted him – Cal is big on texting – with the message: “Coach, we need you more than ever.”
Calipari: “That’s when I knew, ‘We got this now.’ Now we’re just going to start building. I defined roles very precisely and in public for every player to know, and I said, ‘Anybody got an issue? Because we’re doing is not working. This is how it’s going to be.’ ”
By the time the Wildcats arrived here, they’d played themselves back from the brink – “I wasn’t sure we were going to make the NCAA tournament,” Calipari said – and, up until a thumping loss at Florida last weekend, had given the impression of a team figuring things out. They were superb here – toying with Georgia, stifling Alabama and Collin Sexton and then finally getting the better of a tough Tennessee team that had beaten them twice.
“This is the youngest team I’ve ever coached,” said the king of one-and-dones. “I knew this was going to be a tough deal. I thought we were going to use the dribble-drive (offense). Nope. This team is playing like my UMass teams (of 20-some years ago).”
Kentucky starts five freshmen, which hasn’t quite happened to the Wildcats before. For the longest time, they seemed more an aggregation than a team. They were obviously gifted, though not as gifted as Calipari’s best Kentucky teams. They were also adrift. But they’ve coalesced around point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the tournament MVP, and his emergence has put everyone else in the right place, more or less.
To see Kentucky now is to see strengths – scads of quick big men who can defend all over the court – and not the former liabilities. The Wildcats led Tennessee by 17 early, only to see the Vols sail past them on the shooting of Admiral Schofield, only to build another lead, only to lose that one, too.
But Tennessee missed a blockout on a free throw and the 6-foot-9 Wenyen Gabriel, who’d made seven 3-pointers against Alabama, shoveled in the game’s key basket. Then Sacha Killeya-Jones, who’s 6-10, jammed home a Gilgeous-Alexander miss. Then Gabriel-Alexander hit a cool-as-you-like jumper with 59 seconds left. That, finally, was that.
No Kentucky SEC championship would be complete without Calipari launching a pre-emptive strike at the NCAA selection committee. Speculation has swirled that his Wildcats will land in Boise or San Diego as a No. 4 or 5 seed. Cal’s take: “We’ll probably get a 12 and play the play-in in Dayton. Is there a site in Anchorage?”
Another trophy was headed back to Lexington, assuming anybody could be found to take it from commissioner Greg Sankey. Figuratively speaking, this trophy bore more weight than some of those in the many Memorial Coliseum cases. This SEC wasn’t just Kentucky playing against 13 football schools. This time Kentucky won the championship of a league about to dispatch eight teams to the Big Dance, something the SEC has never managed.
Calipari: “What’s happened is our strength of schedules have helped each other, and that’s something we’ve worked on. But you’ve also got to go outside and win games. We have. You’ve also got to recruit so you’ve got enough players to win games, and we have.”
And still Kentucky won. As much as the SEC changed this year, the sight of the Big Blue snipping the nets remains a constant.