Kentucky well-prepared for rigors of SEC road

Cats' first SEC road test looks like an easy one

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 11, 2012 

  • Kentucky At Auburn

    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

    TV: WKYT-27

    Records: UK 15-1 (1-0 SEC); Auburn 10-5 (0-1)

    Series: UK leads 85-17.

    Last meeting: UK won at home 78-54 last season.

    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1, WLAP-AM 630

With growing alarm, Kentucky Coach John Calipari watched Auburn's game at Vanderbilt last weekend.

"Whoa!" he said before asking assistant coach John Robic, "When are we playing them?"

To which Robic said, "Not for a while."

"Good," Calipari said.

The UK coaches were talking about Vanderbilt, which won 65-35 and plays Kentucky on Feb. 11. They were not talking about Auburn, which plays Kentucky on Jan. 11.

Perhaps that said something about Auburn, where Kentucky plays its first Southeastern Conference road game Wednesday night.

The UK coach related that exchange Tuesday when asked about Auburn's inept performance. The Tigers scored the fewest points by a Vandy opponent in 30 years (a 33-31 Commodores loss in the pre-shot-clock era to Mississippi State on Jan. 30, 1982). It was also the fewest points by an Auburn team since a 79-35 loss to Kentucky on Jan. 5, 1951 (eight years before Calipari was born).

Calipari saw this as more a reflection of Vandy's quality play than the scope of the rebuilding task faced by Auburn's second-year coach (and Calipari protégé), Tony Barbee.

"Vanderbilt, right now, is a top-five team," Calipari said. "They just are. What they're doing, right now, besides playing off each other real well (is) they're shooting the ball. And it's not just (John) Jenkins.

"All of a sudden, they make 10, 11 threes, the way they played, you lose by 30. We'll lose by 30 up there if they play like they did against Auburn."

By contrast, Auburn made only 27.3 percent of its shots.

Three days earlier, Auburn made only 15.2 percent of its first-half shots (5-for-33) at Florida State, trailed 50-16 at intermission and lost by 29 points.

No wonder, Barbee said Monday, that his team's confidence had become "a little shaken."

Kentucky (15-1) hasn't lost at Auburn since the 1999-2000 season and has lost only once on The Plains since 1989-90.

Kentucky won only two of eight SEC road games last season. But the Cats were hardly overwhelmed, losing six league road games by a total of 18 points.

Calipari noted how this Kentucky team is further along in its development than at this stage last season.

"We've gotten more experience," he said in reference to senior Darius Miller, plus sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. "We probably have more talent."

Calipari identified veteran players as a key factor in winning on the road. When asked about how a team wins on the opponent's court, he boiled his answer down to the essentials.

"Have really good players," he said, "and preferably veteran players who are really good."

Of the impact veteran players can have, the UK coach mixed metaphors. "When stuff hits the fan, those guys calm the water," he said. A road game and a hostile crowd "speeds up young kids. 'I've got to score now.' ... All of a sudden, we're down 10 because you're in a one-on-one battle. ...

"Hopefully, we have enough veterans out there."

While he's questioned the wisdom of playing three traditional non-conference rivals, Calipari noted the importance of having played what he called four top-15 teams: Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville.

"That kind of hardens you a little bit," he said.

Only one of those games was played on the opponent's court: the instant classic (to borrow a term from ESPN) at Indiana.

"I think that's a great game to prepare us for road games," freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. "That's how it's going to be pretty much everywhere, so I think we should be OK."

Indiana needed a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Kentucky 73-72. The atmosphere was electric, memorable and, as Calipari suggested, to be repeated at Auburn and UK's other league road games.

"It'll be crazy," the UK coach said. "... We walk away saying, 'Oh, my gosh.' But that's what it means to play here. This isn't for everybody. If you're hoping to walk into a half-empty arena and slide by and go get a meal after the game, this isn't the place to go play basketball.

"Every (road) game is somebody's Super Bowl. You have a target on your back. Every road game is sold out. Every road game drives their season-ticket sales. That's just how it is."

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