LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Don't tell Billy Gillispie the Southeastern Conference is down.
Sure, there's just one team ranked in the Top 25 heading into conference play -- No. 15 Tennessee, which lost at home in overtime to unranked Gonzaga on Wednesday -- but Gillispie refuses to believe the SEC ready to crawl back into the shadows now that football season is over.
"I think it should be a very exciting race and I don't buy into it that the conference is down or anything like that like some people are saying," Gillispie said.
Maybe, but for the first time in years there is no clearly defined favorite, which might be a good thing for the Wildcats (11-4), who host surprising Vanderbilt (11-3) on Saturday in the SEC opener for both teams.
"It's a lot more jammed, but at the same time every game is going to be tough, that's just how it is," said Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks. "Our main focus is just one game right now. Everything else we'll worry about later."
Vanderbilt offers plenty of cause for concern. The memory of a 41-point beatdown on the road to the Commodores last year -- the worst SEC lost in Kentucky's storied history -- is still fresh.
"It was disgusting," said Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson. "It was just a horrible, horrible performance."
One of the few in a stunning turnaround by the Wildcats, who salvaged their season with a 12-4 conference mark after limping to a 6-7 start in Gillispie's first year.
Kentucky is far from the disjointed, injury-ravaged mess it was a year ago. All that's done is ramp up the pressure.
"I think we're playing a little more together now than we were at this point last year," said guard Michael Porter. "Last year at this time we really started to play together so we really have to step up even more just to get to that point."
Getting to that point might push the Wildcats back into the SEC title race, one they've watched from the sidelines the last three seasons.
Place part of the blame on the Commodores. Kentucky has dominated Vanderbilt over the years, but not recently. The Commodores have won five of the last six in the series, the only defeat being a double-overtime thriller at Rupp Arena last year.
It was a win that jumpstarted Kentucky's season. Doing it again would give the Wildcats some momentum heading into a showdown with the Volunteers on Tuesday. But Gillispie said he's resisted the urge to look too far down the road.
Given the way the Commodores are playing, that's probably a good idea. Vanderbilt has won six straight behind the play of sophomore center A.J. Ogilvy and guard Jermaine Beal and are built much like the Wildcats, who rely heavily on the inside-out play of Meeks and center Patrick Patterson.
The similarities don't stop there. The Commodores start two freshmen and two sophomores. The Wildcats have five first-year players in their rotation.
That inexperience -- not a lack of talent -- is why Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said the SEC isn't getting much respect these days.
"Our league has still continued to some level hold their own, but not like it's been in past years obviously," Stallings said. "I think it's because of lack of experience."
The real growing up starts on Saturday.
The Wildcats are hoping someone can step up and take some of the scoring burden off Patterson and Meeks, who are combining for 44 of Kentucky's 80 points a game.
Gillispie allows part of the problem may be that his role players are too deferential to his two stars. He's sent more than one player to the bench for passing up an open shot.
"We want guys to shoot it and not be afraid to miss or drive it," Gillispie said. "We're just hesitating a little bit as far as understanding when to shoot and when not to shoot."
Hesitating against the Commodores isn't a good idea. Vanderbilt is second in the country in field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 35.6 percent from the field.
"They get out and really guard you, really try and take you out of what you're good at," Gillispie said.
What the Wildcats have been good at over the years is winning SEC titles. They've won 43 of them over the years, but none since 2005. It might not sound like a long time in most places, but Kentucky is not most places.
"It seems like anybody can get first and anybody can get last," Porter said. "This first game is big."
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