KNOXVILLE, Tenn. | John Calipari is one win away from clinching a Southeastern Conference championship in his first season at Kentucky — just what he was brought in to do.
That's why his answer was swift and decisive when Calipari was asked Friday what winning the school's 44th conference title would mean: "Nothing."
The No. 2 Wildcats (27-1, 12-1), college basketball's winningest program, would assure themselves of at least a share of the championship by beating No. 19 Tennessee on Saturday. They would get the championship outright if Vanderbilt also loses at Arkansas.
"I've always taken the approach that it's about the seed in the NCAA tournament," Calipari said. "If you want me to be honest about how I think and what we're doing to prepare, that's what it is. The SEC tournament is about our seed in the NCAA tournament."
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Calipari says he isn't concerned about players slacking off down the stretch, considering some have projected that there is virtually nothing Kentucky can do to lose a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
The games remain as important as ever, he said, because everything has to do with getting better. The Wildcats certainly saw plenty of improvement Thursday with an 82-61 victory over South Carolina, avenging their only loss.
Most improved was the team's veteran forward Patrick Patterson, who got a season-high 23 points after managing a season-low five in the previous meeting with the Gamecocks.
"I know I have to perform well and go out there with a lot of energy and just play," Patterson said. "I have to come in every game, every night and play ball. I am the veteran, the older guy out there on the court with the most experience, and I should be doing that."
Kentucky beat Tennessee 73-62 earlier this month. Just as Patterson seemed to jump-start his season against South Carolina, freshman guard Eric Bledsoe had one of his best outings against the Vols and has continued his consistent play since.
Once again, the Wildcats may be catching the Vols at a time their star big man, Wayne Chism, isn't 100 percent. In Tennessee's loss to Florida this week, Chism committed a hard foul and dropped to his knees in pain near the bench.
Even if he's fully healthy, Kentucky seems to be hitting its stride with its post play. The Wildcats dominated the rebounding and inside scoring against the Gamecocks, and freshman center DeMarcus Cousins got yet another double-double to extend his UK freshman record to 17.
Tennessee has struggled lately, losing three of its last five games and dropping to fourth in the SEC East behind Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida.
Still, Calipari knows never to look past Vols coach Bruce Pearl, whom he's faced numerous times over the years while leading Memphis.
"He may try to come out with some funky defense and we'll deal with it," Calipari said. "This won't be for the faint of heart. There are no boys in this game."