NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bruce Pearl is in his first season at Auburn, but the coach already has plenty of experience playing against Kentucky. During a six-year run at Tennessee from 2005-11, Pearl’s team enjoyed a healthy rivalry with the Wildcats in conference play. After John Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009, it wasn’t long before Pearl became familiar with Coach Cal’s rosters.
On Saturday Pearl said he always used to find a weakness when scouting Calipari’s teams. This season? That’s a much tougher task.
“When I was in the league at Tennessee, Kentucky had great players, but always there was something there,” Pearl said. “Maybe they weren’t a great free-throw shooting team one year or they weren’t a great three-point shooting team. There’s nothing there that I can think of [this season].”
After Auburn lost to Kentucky, 91-67, in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals, Pearl called Kentucky “the best team I’ve ever coached against.” The undefeated Wildcats added to the hype by earning win No. 33 and reaching the SEC tournament championship game on Sunday. There they will face second-seeded Arkansas, which beat Georgia, 60-49, in the semifinals.
For now perfection remains a goal, not a necessity, for the nation’s No. 1 team. The Wildcats long ago locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. A loss to Arkansas won’t change that. So is Sunday’s matchup still important to Kentucky? “Every game is important,” said ‘Cats’ forward Dakari Johnson.
The SEC championship game matters to both teams, but for different reasons. Arkansas is looking to return luster to its historically successful program. In the 1990s the Razorbacks reached three Final Fours and won a national title under legendary coach Nolan Richardson, whose up-tempo style and intense defense coined the term “40 minutes of hell.” The program might not be a national contender yet, but this year coach Mike Anderson assembled a roster that won 26 games and boasted the league’s best offense. Despite losing by 17 the last time they faced the Wildcats, the Hogs still feel they can knock off the SEC’s best.
Sunday will be the Razorbacks’ first appearance in the tournament final since 2008, and a win would give the program its first tournament title since 2000. Arkansas and Kentucky used to be the pride of the SEC. Now one has returned as a mainstay atop the league standings, but the other is still climbing the ladder.
“There’s been a tremendous history between Arkansas and Kentucky,” Anderson said. “And, of course, they’re playing at another level right now. So we look forward to the opportunity.”
For Kentucky, memories still linger of the last time it reached the SEC final. Last March, top-ranked Florida beat the Wildcats, 61-60, in the tournament title game in Atlanta. That sting hasn’t gone away, especially since Kentucky went on to beat Wisconsin in the Final Four before losing to UConn in the national title game. Now the program hasn’t won the SEC tournament since 2011, the year of Coach Cal’s only NCAA title at Kentucky. That’s why Sunday’s game could serve as a prelude to future success -- or future failure -- for the Wildcats.
The difference, of course, is last year’s Kentucky team lost 11 games. These Wildcats are the nation’s most imposing group, and they have yet to taste defeat. Starters like center Karl-Anthony Towns and forward Trey Lyles, both freshmen, don’t know what it’s like to lose as a college athlete. The target on Big Blue’s back has ballooned over the course of 33 straight wins. It’s a burden the program’s players have seemingly embraced.
“We don’t worry about it,” Towns said. “We just make sure that we worry about each game coming up, and we take it game-by-game. It’s so easy for us. A lot of teams keep looking ahead, but you still have the present to worry about.”
Winning in the regular season is one thing, but the Wildcats admit tournament play is a different beast. Teams often have very little time to prepare for their opponents. Towns said Kentucky is more experienced in that grind than most teams. Last August, the program traveled to the Bahamas for a preseason tournament and played six games in seven days. Sunday’s matchup with Arkansas will be the Wildcats’ third straight contest, but Towns said his team’s physicality won’t be an issue.
Despite its prolific talent, Kentucky’s mentality might be its biggest asset. Calipari has managed to mix Towns, Lyles and a host of highly touted newcomers with more seasoned veterans like guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison. Through 33 games, the system has worked. This is after losing one of the team’s key cogs, junior Alex Poythress, to an ACL injury in December. On Saturday Calipari said overconfidence hasn’t been an issue with this team, and that’s by design.
“If you watch me coach, you know, you don’t have a whole lot of time to act that way,” said Calipari. “My job is to get you to be your best, and I’m not settling for less than that. If you’re in there, you’re not focused, you’re not fighting, you’re not talking, I’m going to say something.”
Kentucky already proved it has the talent to beat Arkansas after its easy win at Rupp Arena in February. Anderson said his team is different now, and it’ll have a chance for a mulligan. But Kentucky is knocking on the door of history as it approaches Selection Sunday. An SEC tournament championship isn’t the endgame for this team, but the ‘Cats don’t plan on losing focus just yet.
“We just go out there and play the best we possibly can,” Towns said. “If we come out with the W, we’re blessed. If we don’t, we learn. We’ve just been fortunate enough to be on the W side a lot.”