LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — John Calipari breathed a sigh of relief after sixth-ranked Kentucky closed out the regular season with a 66-57 win over Florida Saturday.
Kentucky (26-5, 15-3 Southeastern Conference) captured its 16th win on the past 18 games and 12th consecutive win over an unranked opponent. Kentucky also swept Auburn, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt, while splitting with third-place finisher Tennessee.
The Wildcats were without senior Reid Travis, who has missed the past five games because of a sprained knee. Travis is listed as day-to-day but is expected to play in the SEC Tournament. Travis, along with senior classmate Jonny David were honored prior to tipoff and the Wildcats knew they had to take care of business following Tennessee’s 84-80 loss to Auburn Saturday.
Of course, Calipari was happy with a win over the Gators that completed a regular-season sweep but was more excited about the Wildcats wrapping up the No. 2 seed for the upcoming Southeastern Conference Tournament set for Wednesday-Sunday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Instead of playing the last of four quarterfinal-round games on Friday that would have tipped off at approximately 10 p.m. Kentucky will play its tournament opener at 7 p.m. Tennessee will play in the 10 p.m. contest to open the tourney.
“I’m very happy that we're playing at 7,” Calipari said. “I can do this at 7 o'clock — 9 p.m. is a questionable time for me.”
Kentucky finished in a two-way tie with No. 4 Tennessee for second in the league, but the Wildcats claimed the tiebreaker because of a regular-season sweep of Auburn. The Tigers’ upset of the Volunteers, gave the Wildcats better placement in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
Calipari was looking forward to a breather, but his players aren’t so eager to go home for a few days before returning to prepare for the first leg of the postseason. Reid Travis, PJ Washington, and Tyler Herro wanted to stay close to the gym.
“It's a young team and it's been a long season,” Calipari said. “It's been a fast season but it's a long season, and I need their energy, I need them to be fresh mentally and physically, not tired. You know, we try not to overwhelm them with video. We try not to overwhelm them with long practices. But we've got to have energy.”
For Washington, it was a personal decision to stay close to campus rather than fly back home to Dallas for the first few days of spring break.
“I didn’t want to get on that long flight (back home),” he said. “I felt like I might as well stay here, get in the gym and when I made that decision, everybody else made the same decision. That’s a great mindset for us to stay here and work. I wait to get started.”
Johnson simply wanted the Wildcats to stay in a routine and said the team’s preparation won't change.
“We can just stay here and lock-in and stay focused,” he said. “It’s that time of the year, we have to lock-in and stay focused. We’re taking it game-by-game.”
The team’s decision to stay close to the gym wasn’t a surprise to Calipari.
"These guys are gym rats and love being in the gym. They are curious and want to get better," he said. "Really, that attitude is dragged a couple of players that normally wouldn't be that way, to be that way and now their skill set is going like that,
“How many teams in the country, are improving right now? And I said, let's be one of those, there's not many. They can hold on and let's finish this out, limping home, may one game good, play one game bad and let's try to just keep getting better for each weekend.”
Although most teams would welcome a break after a long, grinding season, Washington isn’t concerned about fatigued.
“We’re trying to win the whole thing,” he said. “We can rest after that.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.