UK the heavy favorite to win the SEC Tournament

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Maybe Kentucky coach John Calipari wants
to ease the pressure on his young Wildcats.
He's busy talking about playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA
tournament, though ending a drought with Kentucky's first
Southeastern Conference tournament title since 2004 would a big
deal, too.
All those blue-clad fans heading to Nashville, determined to
sneak through every nook and cranny to watch? They want to see the
Wildcats resume their rightful place atop the SEC. No. 2 Kentucky
is the heavy favorite to take home a 26th tournament title after
running to its 44th regular season crown.
"For us, our whole goal is the seed," Calipari said. "So we
go in there, we lose the first game we're not going to be a 1 seed.
We win the first, lose the second, I think we've done enough to get
that seed."
The games start Thursday, with South Carolina playing Alabama,
No. 15 Tennessee facing LSU, Auburn versus Florida and Georgia
against Arkansas.
Mississippi State won four games in four days to take last
year's title, while Georgia did the same in 2008. Not since Florida
won this tournament en route to consecutive national championships
in 2006 and 2007 has a team with a first-round bye and won the the
Vanderbilt, the No. 2 seed in the East, has the hometown
advantage, playing in the Bridgestone Arena just a couple miles
away from campus. Tennessee always draws a crowd of orange anytime
the Vols play anywhere in this state. Florida, Mississippi State
and Mississippi are desperate for more wins to push them into the
NCAA tournament.
"There are a number of teams that can win," Vanderbilt coach
Kevin Stallings said. "Obviously, Kentucky was the very best in
our league this year, but you never know.
"Certainly Kentucky would have to be considered the favorite."
Darrin Horn's South Carolina Gamecocks joined Tennessee as the
only SEC teams to beat Kentucky (29-2) this season, and his team is
coming off a 77-73 road upset of Vanderbilt. He isn't conceding to
the Wildcats, not at 15-15 and with the SEC's top scorer in Devan
"Obviously, they're the team over a period of a conference
season that has gotten the best record and has earned their No. 1
seed. At the same time, it's tournament time, and anything can
happen on a given day," Horn said.
Calipari and his Wildcats traveled Wednesday with the short trip
from Lexington to Nashville, enjoying the time off until their
first game Friday against either South Carolina or Alabama.
Calipari has had his share of success in league tournaments played
in Tennessee, going 12-0 with four Conference USA titles in Memphis
the previous four seasons.
This roster features five freshmen, including the sensational
John Wall and the stout DeMarcus Cousins. So Calipari had his
Wildcats meet with a sports psychologist March 5, and the coach is
using the SEC tournament almost more as a tuneup for the NCAA
tournament and the chase for an eighth national title.
"We've got to get ourselves prepared for that next weekend, and
that's what we'll do. Basically everything we do is based on how
and where we finish the season," Calipari said.
"We're trying to get ready and right physically and
emotionally, and in every way so we can go in and do our very best.
If you are your best and you do not win, then you can deal with it,
as long as you're your best. I want fresh legs. I want fresh minds.
I want a competitive spirit. I want the players to expect to win so
that when things get a little crazy, it's OK."
Kentucky fans are helping create that crazy atmosphere.
The search for tickets on the streets outside the arena already
was under way Wednesday, and the blue faithful have been working
every angle to squeeze into a much smaller building than the
Georgia Dome, where the tournament is usually held. Tennessee coach
Bruce Pearl noted the coincidence of the SEC tournament being
during Kentucky's spring break each year.
"It's amazing how much blue that they put in any building that
I've been in come tournament time, so I can't imagine what it's
going to be like in Nashville so close to Lexington. I know we'll
have plenty of orange in the house, but we've got to do enough to
give them something to cheer about," Pearl said.
Tennessee's J.P. Prince, a Memphis native, is hopeful of seeing
plenty of home-state orange.
"Our fans are pretty competitive. I'm sure they'll try to outdo
Kentucky at whatever they do," Prince said. "I'm waiting to see.
We won't know till game-time."
The Vols (23-7) have won three straight and five of six. But
Tennessee hasn't won the SEC tournament since 1979, losing to
Mississippi State in the title game last year. The last time the
SEC tournament was played at this arena, Tennessee lost its first
The top four teams in the East - Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee
and Florida - went a combined 24-0 against the Western Division.
No. 20 Vanderbilt also swept Florida this season, possibly giving
the Commodores the easiest path toward their first tourney title
since 1951.
"It means a lot to us," Stallings said. "We would like to
play well, and we would like to be playing on Sunday with a chance
to win the tournament."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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