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Long overdue: Calipari says it’s high time for the SEC to shine on national stage next season

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

The Southeastern Conference has been longing for national respect on the basketball floor for decades.

Historically, Kentucky has carried the banner for the conference, with Florida and others taking turns in the spotlight alongside the Wildcats. But the league is starting to receive even more recognition following South Carolina’s success in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Gamecocks advanced to the Final Four before losing to Gonzaga in the national semifinals and appear poised to be a major contender in the league once again next year under the direction of Frank Martin.

John Calipari says its time for the SEC to make a big jump next season (Tammie Brown Photo)

During the annual SEC meetings in Destin, Florida earlier this week, Kentucky coach John Calipari said the league is set to make a bigger showing on the national stage next season.

“This is our time now,” Calipari told reporters at the meetings. “It’s our time to come out of the gate and do what we do. Like I said, a lot of good young teams. We’re still going to be a young league. Last year we were the youngest league in the country and even though I’ve lost a lot of guys the guys I’ve got coming in, we’re going to still be young. Probably younger than we’ve ever been. But it’s our turn. You know what I’m saying? It’s our turn now. And what we did last year was a great start of it.”

Along with Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina, three teams that made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament last season, other teams will be improved next year, including Alabama and Tennessee. Missouri will depend on prized five-star recruit Michael Porter, Jr. to make a splash under first-year Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“I mean, you look around the room, Alabama now, they’ve got two legitimate guards and in college basketball now that means you have a chance to win every game,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you’re winning every game. It means you have a chance to win every game. And you just go around the room. I’m looking at guys and Tennessee just snatches a kid that scores 25 a game, 28 a game whatever it was. And Ricky B’s going to let the guy shoot. So it should be fun.”

The path won’t be easy for the Wildcats, either and Calipari isn’t looking forward to a trip to Columbia to play the Gamecocks next season. The Kentucky coach praised Martin’s ability to build the South Carolina program straight “from the bottom.”

“(Frank) just kept going and gets left out of the tournament when he’s right on the edge and it doesn’t faze the program or them,” he said. “Anytime we go to South Carolina … I think we go to South Carolina (this year) … usually I get thrown out early. I’ve been thrown out a couple of times down there. I told their president I’ll stay more than three minutes this time. It’s packed. It’s a great environment. And now it’s for all of us to sustain that and do it with multiple league games, where people walk in they see it.”

In order to build on the success the league enjoyed last year, especially in the Big Dance, Calipari said the league can’t look back and must continue to “win” against non-conference foes.

“Scheduling was a big part of it because we didn’t hurt each other when we came together,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to continue on that path. But you’ve got to win. There were years where in November and December, we just lost games as a league … like, we can’t lose those kinds of games. And last year we didn’t. Now the whole object is to try to get seven, eight teams in (the NCAA Tournament).”

Schedule update: Kentucky’s SEC schedule was released Thursday and the Wildcats will play home games against Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Road games are at Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vandy.

Kentucky’s permanent home-and-home opponents are Florida, Tennessee and Vandy.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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