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March 13, 2013Kentucky's win over Florida didn't just give it a second top-50 RPI win, it reshaped UK's postseason path.
Instead of being the No. 5 seed and having to possibly face both Florida and Tennessee on its side of the bracket, UK is the No. 2 seed and will likely have to face Ole Miss or Missouri on its side.
It also got the Wildcats a double-bye, with its first game scheduled for Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"That would've been tough," coach John Calipari said of potentially having to play four games in four days if UK hadn't been a top-four seed. "But obviously in any tournament you're in, the higher your seed, the better your chances are of winning the tournament.
"That's just how it is. Doesn't mean we're going to win it. Doesn't mean we're going to get to the finals. There are upsets every year, in every tournament. But the percentages are in your favor if you're a higher seed."
Kyle Wiltjer], who played in all three SEC Tournament games last year (averaging 8.3 minutes and 3.7 points), said taking it one game at a time is the key.
"It's a lot of basketball in a short amount of time," Wiltjer said. "We just need to worry about improving as a team and staying confident and trying to get better and build momentum for the next tournament."
He's one of the few Wildcats who have experienced tournament time.
"I have no idea what the conference tournament is like," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We're just out here playing. We're just trying to survive."
They'll try to survive against either No. 7 seed Arkansas or No. 10 seed Vanderbilt, who will play Thursday night. Wiltjer said both are "good teams" and said UK doesn't have a preference for which team they play in the quarterfinals.
Kentucky beat Vanderbilt by two on the road and by four at home, and lost to Arkansas by 13 on the road, this season.
"Coach Cal's emphasized just preparing for ourselves," Wiltjer said. "That's going to be the biggest battle, playing against ourselves. Just becoming a better team, and then whoever we end up playing, going over some of their sets and stuff like that to get ready for the game."
Wiltjer said "playing great defense" will be "the key" going into the SEC Tournament - and possibly the next one, if the Wildcats make it there. UK's NCAA Tournament bid is still up in the air, but Wiltjer said the team isn't paying attention to it.
Instead, they're focusing on continuing improvement from the Florida win.
"Not only did we play good in the game, we had a great practice yesterday, and guys are still working hard," Wiltjer said. "We're confident going into this second half of the season."
Over the last six games, Wiltjer is averaging five points per game. He has made 4 of 22 threes (18.2 percent) and shot 23.8 percent overall.
"I don't think of it as a slump," Wiltjer said. "I just come every day with the same mentality."
Meaning any day could be the day he breaks the slump. He said practice is the place to "turn around your confidence" by getting in extra shots.
He's done it before. Earlier this year, he went through a six-game stretch where he made 5 of 30 threes (16.7 percent), then made 16 of 27 (59.3 percent) in the next four.
UK could use another turnaround like that as postseason play begins.
If he doesn't, he can still help the team by playing defense.
"He's struggling defensively. We just got to figure out what we do because it's hard to leave him in the game if they're scoring on him every time," Calipari said Saturday. "Everybody wants him to make every shot, but I don't care. He can miss every shot if he defends."
Either way, Wiltjer knows he can't get shut down on both ends of the court.
"If they want to respect my shot (and guard me close), and they want to attack me (on defense)," Wiltjer said, "I got to play good on both ends."
Nerlens Noel led Kentucky in its SEC postseason awards haul, with the three other freshmen and Wiltjer also honored.
Noel, who averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game, was named Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He was also named to the All-SEC First Team, All-Freshman Team and All-Defensive Team.
Wiltjer, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.3 rebounds, was named the Sixth Man of the Year, despite a scoreless finale against Florida on the heels of a 12-point, 5-for-16 shooting performance in a loss at Georgia.
"Happy for him," Calipari said. "They didn't take the voting in the last week, I can tell you. But I'm happy for him. Maybe that inspires him to step up his play again."
Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein joined Noel on the All-Freshman team.
Goodwin averaged a team-high 14.1 points and 4.5 rebounds; Poythress averaged 11.6 points and 6.2 rebounds; and Cauley-Stein averaged 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Cauley-Stein said the awards validate the four freshmen, to a degree.
"There for a while, people was questioning whether we should be playing with Kentucky, questioning our abilities to play the game of basketball," Cauley-Stein said.
But Calipari said those awards won't change the fact that "they're being questioned across the country now." He said ESPN's Pardon the Interruption asserted Calipari made recruiting mistakes about his point guard and has had people say - he didn't specify who - that Goodwin and Poythress "aren't good enough."
"That's what happens when your team struggles," Calipari said. "When your team does really good, you don't even have to the most shots and you can't be the one and two pick.
"I've been trying to explain that all year, but (players think), 'I'm going to carve out my own niche.' What happens is, you start dropping like rocks. So we have something to prove, believe me. Individuals, as a team, we have a lot to prove."