SEC lead at stake in Nashville

Cats trying to stop four-game losing streak at Vanderbilt

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 20, 2010 

Kentucky Coach John Calipari spoke of taking not one team, but two teams to Nashville for Saturday's highly anticipated Southeastern Conference showdown with Vanderbilt.

"We're good enough to beat anybody," he said Friday. "And we play a way that anybody's good enough to beat us."

Vanderbilt, which has beaten Kentucky in Nashville the past four seasons, certainly qualifies as a team good enough to beat UK.

Kentucky showed its good and bad sides in winning at Mississippi State in overtime on Tuesday. The bad Cats trailed 67-60 with three minutes left. Then the good Cats got the score tied by the end of regulation and won 81-75 in overtime.

"We locked down and played," said Calipari, meaning UK valued the ball and defended. "They (Mississippi State) did not get any opportunities.

"We're not able to do that for 40 minutes. We're not ready for that. We're good enough to beat anybody, but we make plays that keep everybody in games."

Calipari cited youth as a reason for his team's dual personality.

Fittingly, Calipari had two takes on whether the Cats find themselves in a big game at Vanderbilt.

"It's not a big game because it's February," he said. UK's objective remains "all about seeding," not the SEC race, he said.

Yet, Calipari added a qualifier. "If we win," he said, "it'll be a huge game."

By winning at Vanderbilt, Kentucky would take a two-game lead in the SEC's overall and Eastern Division races with two weeks to go.

If Vandy wins, the teams will be tied and the Commodores would hold the edge in the SEC tiebreaker system. "That would be an exciting position to be in," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said.

(The first tiebreaker is head-to-head play, which would be even. The second tiebreaker is division record, which would be even. The third tiebreaker is record against first place, then second place, etc. If Vandy wins, the teams will have given each other one of their two losses. Vandy's second loss was to last-place Georgia while UK lost at fifth-place South Carolina.)

Vandy center A.J. Ogilvy also equated big with victory. When asked if this was the biggest home game of his college career, he said, "The biggest game we've played was Tennessee my freshman year. Having them come in here the No. 1 team and beating them was pretty big. I guess it all depends on the outcome (on Saturday)."

For Kentucky to win, the Cats must deal with Vandy's famous home court. Of course, Memorial Gym's stage-like configuration requires the benches to be on the end lines so as not to obstruct the view of fans.

To prepare himself for the difference, Calipari said he consulted with another SEC coach he did not name.

"He said it's really hard," the UK coach said. "Because in the first half you won't be able to speak to the team. If they turn around and look at you, they get the ball stolen."

Calipari sounded prepared to trust freshman guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe to run the team in the first half at the far end of the court.

"When I told them you won't be able to hear me, they said, 'Really? Good!,'" Calipari said. "They were happy."

Calipari said earlier this month that certain players might benefit from tuning him out and playing freely. Memorial Gym can test that idea.

"It's really hard to hear the coaches," said Darius Miller, one of the players Calipari wanted to play more freely. "... It's hard to know what they want you to do."

Senior Ramon Harris also saw good and bad in the bench location.

"It's good in a way," he said. "Guys can just play. At the same time, when coaches see something that can work, you can't see them."

Calipari noted that other visiting teams, and even Vandy, face the same problem in Memorial Gym.

But Stallings saw a possible advantage.

"They like to call a lot of plays and it limits the play-calling when the game is away from you," the Vandy coach said of the Cats. "It limits the amount of communication you have when the game is away from you. You just kind of have to experience it to get used to it. It still frustrates me, so I can't imagine a guy coming in here one time."

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