Kentucky is back in a familiar place — atop the Southeastern Conference and dominating the league awards.
Freshman sensation John Wall was named player of the year and newcomer of the year on The Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference team released this week, and John Calipari made it a clean sweep for the Wildcats by taking the coaching honor.
After two tumultuous seasons under Billy Gillispie, Wall and Calipari led Kentucky to its 44th regular-season SEC championship, 26th conference tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I thought we’d have a successful team, but I thought we’d probably have a couple bumps in the road,” said junior forward Patrick Patterson, who was there during the tough times. “Earlier in this season, I never would have imagined us at this point we are now.”
Wall and another Wildcats freshman, forward DeMarcus Cousins, were both unanimous choices to the first team, as was South Carolina guard Devan Downey. The other first-teamers were Jarvis Varnado of Mississippi State and Georgia’s Trey Thompkins.
Patterson led the second team, which also included Chris Warren of Mississippi, Jermaine Beal of Vanderbilt, Tasmin Mitchell of LSU and Wayne Chism of Tennessee.
Kentucky (32-2) won the regular season title with a 14-2 mark, then captured the SEC tournament with an overtime victory over Mississippi State in the championship game Sunday.
Wall and Cousins were at their best in that thriller, which locked up a No. 1 seed and set up the Wildcats to face East Tennessee State in the opening round of the NCAAs on Thursday.
Cousins sent the game to overtime with a putback off Wall’s missed 3-pointer from the corner, just beating the buzzer to cap a comeback from five points down in the final 2-1/2 minutes.
Then, in the extra period, Wall scored seven of his 15 points to lead Kentucky to a 75-74 win.
“They’ve been doing it all year,” Calipari said. “They have an unbelievable will to win.”
Wall and Cousins teamed up to provide a classic inside-combination for Calipari’s first season at Kentucky.
A 6-foot-4 point guard, Wall stepped out of high school to lead the SEC in assists (6.3) and finish fourth in scoring (16.9). He also ranked third in steals.
Cousins, a 6-11 forward, was second in rebounding average (10.1) and was eighth in scoring at 15.5.
Calipari, who had led both Massachusetts and Memphis to the Final Four, took over a storied program that was in disarray after the divisive Gillispie era. He was well compensated for the move to Lexington, agreeing to an eightyear deal worth just under $32 million that made him the highestpaid coach in college basketball.
Consider it money well spent. Calipari needed only one season to turn things around, led by two brilliant freshmen who could be one-and-done with the college game.
Their coach will worry about that after the NCAA tournament.
“What I’ve told all our guys is focus on being great college play- ers, focus on what you can do to help the team win, and focus on what you have to work on to be your best right now,” Calipari said. “That’s all we’re talking about, all we’re focusing on. We’re not talking about anything next year. We have three weeks left in our season and that’s all we’re focused on.”
Downey, a 5-9 senior guard, closed his brilliant career at South Carolina by leading the SEC in scoring at 22.5 points a game. He beat out runner-up Thompkins by a wide margin to earn a third straight appearance on the first team.
Varnado also repeated as a first-teamer, while LSU’s Tasmin Mitchell slipped to the second team after being named to the first team in 2009.
Thompkins, a 6-10 sophomore forward, was the clear-cut star on a rebuilding Georgia team that was much more competitive than anyone had expected. In addition to finishing second in scoring (17.7), he was fourth in rebounds (8.3).
The 6-9 Varnado was a force in the lane for Mississippi State. He led the conference in rebounding (10.4) and blocked shots (4.8); he also finished second in field-goal percentage (.583) while averaging 13.4 points.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said Cousins, who went against the Bulldogs star in the SEC title game. “That’s a tough matchup for anybody to play against. He’s just got so much length, and he’s so good as what he does. It’s just tough to score and do anything over him.”
Patterson, who averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 rebounds, made the second team for the third year in a row, just missing out on giving Kentucky a third player on the first team. He was edged by Thompkins for the final spot by one point.