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Kentucky back in accustomed spot as SEC fave

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Maybe Kentucky coach John Calipari wants to ease the pressure on his young Wildcats.

He's busy talking about playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, though ending a drought with Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference tournament title since 2004 would a big deal, too.

All those blue-clad fans heading to Nashville, determined to sneak through every nook and cranny to watch? They want to see the Wildcats resume their rightful place atop the SEC. No. 2 Kentucky is the heavy favorite to take home a 26th tournament title after running to its 44th regular season crown.

"For us, our whole goal is the seed," Calipari said. "So we go in there, we lose the first game we're not going to be a 1 seed. We win the first, lose the second, I think we've done enough to get that seed."

The games start Thursday, with South Carolina playing Alabama, No. 15 Tennessee facing LSU, Auburn versus Florida and Georgia against Arkansas.

Mississippi State won four games in four days to take last year's title, while Georgia did the same in 2008. Not since Florida won this tournament en route to consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007 has a team with a first-round bye won the title.

Vanderbilt, the No. 2 seed in the East, has the hometown advantage, playing in the Bridgestone Arena just a couple miles away from campus. Tennessee always draws a crowd of orange anytime the Vols play anywhere in this state. Florida, Mississippi State and Mississippi are desperate for more wins to push them into the NCAA tournament.

"There are a number of teams that can win," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Obviously, Kentucky was the very best in our league this year, but you never know.

"Certainly Kentucky would have to be considered the favorite."

Darrin Horn's South Carolina Gamecocks joined Tennessee as the only SEC teams to beat Kentucky (29-2) this season, and his team is coming off a 77-73 road upset of Vanderbilt. He isn't conceding to the Wildcats, not at 15-15 and with the SEC's top scorer in Devan Downey.

"Obviously, they're the team over a period of a conference season that has gotten the best record and has earned their No. 1 seed. At the same time, it's tournament time, and anything can happen on a given day," Horn said.

Calipari and his Wildcats traveled Wednesday with the short trip from Lexington to Nashville, enjoying the time off until their first game Friday against either South Carolina or Alabama. Calipari has had his share of success in league tournaments played in Tennessee, going 12-0 with four Conference USA titles in Memphis the previous four seasons.

This roster features five freshmen, including the sensational John Wall and the stout DeMarcus Cousins. So Calipari had his Wildcats meet with a sports psychologist March 5, and the coach is using the SEC tournament almost more as a tuneup for the NCAA tournament and the chase for an eighth national title.

"We've got to get ourselves prepared for that next weekend, and that's what we'll do. Basically everything we do is based on how and where we finish the season," Calipari said.

"We're trying to get ready and right physically and emotionally, and in every way so we can go in and do our very best. If you are your best and you do not win, then you can deal with it, as long as you're your best. I want fresh legs. I want fresh minds. I want a competitive spirit. I want the players to expect to win so that when things get a little crazy, it's OK."

Kentucky fans are helping create that crazy atmosphere.

The search for tickets on the streets outside the arena already was under way Wednesday, and the blue faithful have been working every angle to squeeze into a much smaller building than the Georgia Dome, where the tournament is usually held. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl noted the coincidence of the SEC tournament being during Kentucky's spring break each year.

"It's amazing how much blue that they put in any building that I've been in come tournament time, so I can't imagine what it's going to be like in Nashville so close to Lexington. I know we'll have plenty of orange in the house, but we've got to do enough to give them something to cheer about," Pearl said.

Tennessee's J.P. Prince, a Memphis native, is hopeful of seeing plenty of home-state orange.

"Our fans are pretty competitive. I'm sure they'll try to outdo Kentucky at whatever they do," Prince said. "I'm waiting to see. We won't know till game-time."

The Vols (23-7) have won three straight and five of six. But Tennessee hasn't won the SEC tournament since 1979, losing to Mississippi State in the title game last year. The last time the SEC tournament was played at this arena, Tennessee lost its first game.

The top four teams in the East — Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Florida — went a combined 24-0 against the Western Division. No. 20 Vanderbilt also swept Florida this season, possibly giving the Commodores the easiest path toward their first tourney title since 1951.

"It means a lot to us," Stallings said. "We would like to play well, and we would like to be playing on Sunday with a chance to win the tournament."