NEW ORLEANS — For months, Kentucky has been all but given the national championship by those who follow college basketball.
It makes sense.
The Wildcats boast a roster with what could be seven NBA picks, or about seven more than most other SEC schools.
But Saturday, Kentucky showed why it’ll do more than just be given the title.
The Wildcats showed they’re willing to earn it.
Florida pushed Kentucky like it has been pushed only a few times this season.
The Gators made 3-pointers. They answered Kentucky baskets with their own. And they got big days from two players the Wildcats couldn’t figure out how to stop
And Kentucky still found a way to move into its 37th SEC tournament finals.
Not that coach John Calipari necessarily cares about that.
If it were up to him, Kentucky would have be at home resting after a 30-1 regular season.
“ I don't like tournament play,” Calipari said. “We play all season. Three games in three days, I don't like it.”
But Calipari also understands that where he is, Kentucky, he has no choice.
“What I just told them is that Kentucky’s different and 15,000 people come here,” Calipari said. “They can’t get in Rupp Arena, so they come here, or wherever we play. They save all year so they can come to this.
“And so you have an obligation to come in and play to win.”
So against Florida, Calipari coached to win.
The largely pro-Kentucky crowd witnessed why everyone is so high on Kentucky.
Florida shot 48.3 percent for the game and hit 11 of 22 3-pointers.
Yet, Kentucky played smart, fouling only eight times the entire game.
And it played quick, using its length and size and athleticism to constantly put Florida on its heels.
Down 56-51, Kentucky went on a 14-0 run that few teams in the country could have fought off.
The Wildcats hit shot after shot, grabbed rebound after rebound and forced four turnovers.
When pushed to the brink, the young but talented Wildcats put their vehicle in another gear.
Few teams will be able to contend with that, especially away from their home courts.
In other words, Kentucky could be right back here in New Orleans in a month.
Only then it would be for the NCAA title, one that many predicted a long time ago.
They showed Saturday why that might not be such a bad prediction.