FILE - In this Feb. 2015, file photo, Kentucky head coach John Calipari, right, instructs Andrew Harrison (5) and Tyler Ulis (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 77-43. Calipar
James Crisp, File
March 12, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Top-ranked Kentucky has had extra time to recharge with a bye through the first two rounds of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

The Wildcats will open the postseason hoping that fresh legs will carry them to an SEC title.

The top-seeded Wildcats (31-0) open the tournament Friday against Florida (16-16) in what they hope is the first of three games in three days. Add in next weekend's NCAA Tournament, and the schedule could possibly be five games in nine days.

As much as Kentucky relished the rest, players look forward to the most challenging part of the season that will determine if they make history as the school's first undefeated national champion.

''Now, it's do or die, it's win or go home, just have a lot of fun doing it,'' junior 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said this week. ''This is the funnest time of the year. ... From the first workout, now it's all about business. That's what you play for.''

As easy as the Wildcats have made it look at times this season, coach John Calipari quickly notes that now is the time for his team to up their games individually and collectively against opponents out to derail their quest.

Florida (16-16) is the first SEC nemesis to take a shot at the Wildcats.

The Gators overcame a slow start to beat Alabama 69-61 on Thursday with nine 3-pointers on 29 attempts a 35-24 rebounding edge and just six turnovers. They're back at full strength with Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith (23 points, 11 rebounds) and hungry to earn an NCAA bid.

''Do you have a team that is really going to fight until the bitter end?'' Calipari asked. ''You're seeing a lot of those kinds of games. My concern is my team and no one else. I just want my team to play at their best. If that's not good enough we'll go back and get ready for the seeding.''

Kentucky faced that same urgency last spring as its heralded eight-man freshman class stumbled into the postseason unranked and uncertain about their NCAA Tournament prospects. The Wildcats emerged from the SEC tournament with a new resolve after losing by a point to top-seeded Florida in the title game and went on to reach the NCAA final.

As the team to beat since the beginning of the season, the coach is emphasizing not letting up now, even in the conference tournament.

Certainly, there's room for improvement even after last week's 67-50 win over Florida that completed Kentucky's perfect regular season. The Gators played the Wildcats close until Kentucky finished with a 20-9 run over the final 10 1/2 minutes.

The Wildcats now get the Gators for the second time in a week and the third time this season. The previous games have been competitive, so they know it's no time to rest on past accomplishments with the stakes much higher.

''It just comes down to executing,'' freshman guard Devin Booker said. ''I'm sure they (the Gators) still have that loss on their heads, so I feel like they're going to come out harder.''

You May Like