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Calipari laments 'stacked' South

To hear Kentucky coach John Calipari tell it, the only team the Cats won’t have to beat to survive the 2012 NCAA Tournament South Region is one featuring a big man named LeBron.

“I heard they were trying to get an exemption to have the Heat be the second seed in our bracket,” Calipari joked Sunday night. “But they weren’t allowed to get that so they couldn’t put them in there, too.”

Calipari, as has been tradition, brought his team directly from the SEC Tournament championship game in New Orleans to his Lexington home on Richmond Road to watch the Selection Sunday show. Flight times made it impossible for the party to arrive in time for the announcement, but Calipari did address UK’s slot in the field of 68 on his patio where he was holding court about the difficult of the bracket.

“I keep hearing everybody say we got the toughest region,” Calipari said. “That’s OK. That’s to be expected. I’m just happy we’re not playing on Tuesday.”

Kentucky, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, will meet the winner of Western Kentucky vs. Mississippi Valley State on Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. Should they win, the Cats would play Saturday against the survivor of No. 8 Iowa State and No. 9 Connecticut, the defending national champions.

“First game will be hard. Second game will be like a war,” Calipari said. “If you’re lucky enough to move on from there then it’s one team after another. They stacked the region and that’s OK. We’ve played all comers.”

One saving grace is that Kentucky, by virtue of being a No. 1 seed, was slotted into the Louisville site. Cat fans gobbled up many of the 19,000+ tickets when they went on sale last October.

“I imagine wherever we go it’s going to be all blue,” Calipari said. “I’ve had teams that had to go to Houston and play Texas in front of 35,000 Texas fans. We had to play Texas A&M in San Antonio in front of 35,000 Aggies. So I’ve had some stuff thrown at my teams before.

“But this is fun,” the coach said. “I’ve got a good team. I’m ready to get to work.”

The first order of business in Kentucky’s drive to return to New Orleans, this time for the Final Four at the Louisiana Superdome, is to do nothing. After three games in three days at the SEC Tournament, the Cats are spent.

“I’ve probably got to give this team off tomorrow completely, let them get their senses back and get off the court and get their minds back,” Calipari said. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s what I’m going to do because I’m sensing we don’t need to do anything tomorrow.

“We’ve got to get our breath back,” the coach added. “Three games in three days, now you know why I don’t like these tournaments. I would like to have won it, but it’s three days. We may have lost our legs a little bit against Vanderbilt. I was begging our guys, ‘Sub yourself. Do not stay in there tired.’ But it’s hard for those guys. They’re competitors.

“The good news,” Calipari said, “is we don’t know who we play until Tuesday so to practice Monday and Tuesday we’re just practicing on our stuff, we’re not really working on anything that we had to do versus them.”

When Kentucky does play Thursday the opponent will be a tasty tidbit regardless of the opponent.

If WKU survives, there will be the meeting of traditional basketball powers as old as the game itself.

“When you think about the old days when coach Ed Diddle was there,” Calipari said. “As I understand this school wouldn’t play Western unless it was in the NCAA Tournament, is that true?”

This version of Hilltoppers has written its own chapter. The coach was fired during the season and interim coach Ray Harper was named head coach just in time for WKU to go on a tear to win the Sun Belt Tournament despite a 13-18 record.

“It’s always tough on young people when there’s a coaching change,” Calipari said. “So for those guys and their coach to do what they’ve done is just phenomenal. There’s a team that’s going to be on a mission.”

If Mississippi Valley State wins Tuesday, the Cats will battle with Delta Devils coach Sean Woods, a member of UK’s 1992 “Unforgettables.”

“Great kid and a great coach,” Calipari said. “He and I have stayed in touch. He’s done a terrific job and we’re all proud of him because he’s done a good job. He and Tony Barbee, who played for me and was my assistant and is now the coach at Auburn, are really good friends. So I’ve known Sean for a long, long time.”

The challenge for WKU or MSVS, despite the fact no 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed, is that they will walk head first into the Big Blue Nation in downtown Louisville.

“I would say I hope it’s a blue building. I hope Atlanta, if we’re lucky enough to move on, would be blue,” Calipari said. “But you don’t know if we can move on. Those are hard games you’ll be lucky to win.”

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