MORGANTOWN — The way John Calipari, the Kentucky basketball coach, sees it, the SEC-Big 12 challenge that will be played this weekend will match up the two best conferences in the country.
“Look,” Calipari said during the SEC coaches conference call Tuesday morning, “both leagues are really strong this year. I would say right now when you look at RPI and the other things, it’s probably the two best leagues.”
And, looking at things up close and personal, he believes his young, struggling Wildcats, who just fell out of the Top 25 after 69 weeks in it, are walking into a lion’s den when they comes to the Coliseum on Saturday to play No. 7 West Virginia.
“We probably have the challenge of challenges, playing who we’re playing and how they’re playing and on their court where they just don’t lose,” Calipari said, perhaps exaggerating somewhat considering he’s facing in WVU a team that has lost three of its last four games, one of those losses on the Coliseum court.
Calipari brings the youngest team in the nation in to face the experienced Mountaineers to start off a rather hectic stretch for his team.
“We got West Virginia, a fish fry, we go home and have that night, a Blue out. It’ll be an interesting week,” Calipari admitted, thinking ahead not only to the WVU game but to spending Friday night with his coaching buddy, Bob Huggins, at Huggins’ annual Fish Fry at Mylan Park that benefits the Norma Rae Huggins Cancer Fund.
“West Virginia is really good. They are a veteran team that’s really physical. Defensively they press, disrupt, deny. They’re a Top 5 team,” he said. “I know there are some other teams ranked above them but I’m going to tell you in a one-game contest they are hard to beat.”
Obviously, Huggins respects the Kentucky team that is 15-5 and 5-3 in the SEC.
As usual, they had most of their team leave last year for the NBA and have retooled with freshmen, but they are freshmen with a whole lot of stars after their names.
“They have great overall size and length. That’s the first thing that jumps out at you,” Huggins said. “I’m amazed that Cal can take guys and get them to play together the way they do and have them organized the way they are in such a short period of time. I have 3-year guys who don’t know what they’re doing.
“If you watch them, they are very organized and run good sets. I got guys here three years who don’t have a clue.”
Huggins was only half kidding.
In many ways a Kentucky victory over WVU would be a boost for the SEC, which has never won this series, tying for the first time last year.
But the SEC is a conference on the rise with not only Kentucky but with Auburn and Alabama having surprisingly good years and solid teams in Florida and Tennessee.
Calipari hesitates to put too much on it, though, because there are so many factors involved, including coming in the middle of league play when the concentration is on one’s own conference.
“It would be good if we won, but I don’t think it affects anything because some of it is where you’re playing games,” Calipari said. “The Big 12 is really good, but what are the matchups? There could be matchups in our favor; that doesn’t mean the Big 12 isn’t strong. There could be matchups in their favor; it may not mean because of who’s on the court and who’s healthy.”
The thing is, both these leagues will be well represented come tournament time no matter what happens this weekend
“It doesn’t do anything to hurt what’s happening in our league. We have some teams who lose a couple of games — and not just us — who drop like a rock. But in other leagues you lose two in a row and it doesn’t really affect you.
“That’s the dregs of the old SEC. That’s just the dregs. I mean, we lose to South Carolina, they just went to Florida and won. Wait a minute, what? We have a really good league now with really good coaches and dudes are performing. There’s no bad teams in this league, none.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.