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Vandy visits Rupp Arena, where Kentucky dominates

Cats at their best when they're in Rupp

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 1, 2011 

Brandon Knight drove to the basket in the win over Florida in Rupp Arena. Knight's assist-to-turnover ratio is markedly better when he's at home.

PABLO ALCALA | STAFF

Kentucky has managed to extend the nation's second-longest home winning streak to 33 games and set a school record for road futility in the Southeastern Conference this season.

"I don't have an answer," UK Coach John Calipari said Monday when asked to explain that dichotomy. "I wish I had it."

Vanderbilt knows it faces the Kentucky team on Tuesday that has beaten all seven of its SEC opponents in Rupp Arena by an average of 17.9 points per game.

"For the most part, not even challenged in a severe way," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said of UK's home games.

But for the first time since the SEC went to divisional play in 1991-92, Kentucky has lost six league road games (and still must play Sunday at Tennessee, where the Cats have lost three of the past four).

Stallings and UK center Josh Harrellson, the man of the two hours on this Senior Night, touched on Kentucky's youth as a possible explanation.

"They've got a lot tougher job," Harrellson said of UK's freshmen on the road. "They've never been through it. They don't know what to expect. It's easier for the crowd to take young guys out of the game. They can say certain things to get them off track."

Coincidentally or not, freshman point guard Brandon Knight has a much better assist-to-turnover ratio at home than on the road in league play. He's had 37 assists and 13 turnovers against SEC teams in Rupp Arena. On the road, he's had more turnovers (27) than assists (23).

Overall, Kentucky has had 94 assists and 73 turnovers in home SEC games. On the road, it's 75 assists and 79 turnovers.

"I think he's played well on the road," Calipari said of Knight. "He hasn't been an issue. We've had two or three guys go comatose on the road. Some of it is inexperience. Some of it is young. Some, maybe, anxiety. 'We have to win. We're Kentucky.' "

A six-man rotation made up of three freshmen and three former auxiliary parts makes inexperience and youth difficult problems to fix. So Calipari works to ease anxiety.

"I just tell them, 'Quit worrying about winning; just play hard; play harder (than the opponent); let's execute together,' " he said. "If we do that, let this stuff fall where it falls."

One statistic that varies noticeably home and away is three-point shooting, which contributes to the fewer assists on the road.

So far, has UK shot 45.5 percent from three-point range and averaged 8.9 treys in Rupp Arena against league opponents. On the road, the accuracy dips to 31.4 percent and the average number of three-pointers is 5.4.

"They shoot the ball incredibly here," Florida's Chandler Parsons said after the Cats made seven of 14 three-pointers on Saturday. Overall, Kentucky shot 51.7 percent against the Gators, which marked the third consecutive home game in which UK made at least half its shots.

"Everybody has a different mindset, maybe," Harrellson said in trying to explain the difference between home and away performances. "Maybe more relaxed. Not nervous knowing we're not playing on the road."

Florida Coach Billy Donovan, a former UK assistant for Rick Pitino, said he understood the normally outsized expectations of Kentucky basketball. He suggested maybe it was unfair to expect the Cats to dominate on the road.

"They're not the team they were last year," Donovan said. "They don't have five first-round draft picks. They don't have a lot of depth. Last year they had an incredible amount of depth. Incredible."

Donovan also noted the "energy boost" the Rupp Arena crowd gives Kentucky. "On the road, the team they're playing is on a high emotional level," he said.

With Vanderbilt coming to town, Calipari appealed for that eneregy boost from Kentucky fans. "The crowd against Florida was ridiculous," he said. "I hope for Josh, it being Senior Night, they come ready to help us play as good as we can play."

Stallings acknowledged an intimidation factor his team must overcome. "Rabid fans," he said of the Rupp Arena atmosphere. "If you're not a real confident player, it can be unnerving."

After Tuesday night, Kentucky won't play in Rupp Arena again this season. Calipari accentuated the positive by noting the Cats only have one more game on an opponent's court.

"The good news is the NCAA is played at neutral sites," he said.

Kentucky is 3-1 on neutral sites, and that includes the so-called neutral-site victory over Notre Dame in Louisville. But compared to the 1-6 SEC road record, neutrality never looked so good.

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