John Clay: Florida, Vandy will put Cats to test

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 5, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Having pummeled the bottom of the conference pecking order with an incessant live stream of lob dunks, Kentucky now enters what promises to be a more competitive week.

Now 9-0 in the league for the first time since 2004-05, the Cats play host to second-place Florida (7-1) on Tuesday, then travel to Vanderbilt (tied for third at 5-3) on Saturday.

First, Florida. Billy Donovan has been something of a persona non grata in these parts since the former Rick Pitino assistant declined not one, but two opportunities to take over the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. And the Big Blue Nation has taken some satisfaction in its belief that in John Calipari, it ended up with the superior coach.

But while it's hard to argue with Calipari's long list of accomplishments in such a short time since taking a Lexington residence, let's not kid ourselves about Donovan's coaching acumen.

The man owns two NCAA championship rings, after all. He's been to three title games. He's done what Kentucky football is striving to do — forge a winning program in a particular sport at a school better known for its success in another major sport.

This year, Billy D. has molded a group of munchkins — at times it appears the Gators are using a five-guard lineup — with scant inside presence into a team that earned a little separation in the standings on Saturday with a 73-65 win over visiting Vanderbilt.

Given its love of the three-point shot, Florida might be the one team that could negate Anthony Davis' serial shot-blocking ability. Then again, Anthony Davis has shown he's capable of pouncing on perimeter shooters just in time to send their shots sailing, as well.

"They're going to shoot 30 threes minimum," said Calipari of the Gators. "If they make 20, then it's on to the next game."

In such, Kentucky travels to Music City where Vanderbilt is stuck on a sad tune. Past victims of a late-season tournament collapse, this year they've front-loaded their disappointments, losing to Cleveland State and Indiana State at Memorial Gym, falling to 5-3 in the league after Saturday's loss in Gainesville.

An atypically veteran team in this one-and-done age, Vanderbilt played as if it had never encountered a full-court press before Saturday, turning the ball over in its backcourt eight times.

That had to be a bitter pill for Kevin Stallings. The Vandy coach was first to publicly complain about Kentucky being excluded from the conference's Thursday-Saturday scheduling combos. Yet, Vanderbilt had four days to prepare for the Gators. Florida had one day's rest after beating South Carolina on Thursday night. Florida won anyway.

So now, with ESPN's College GameDay scheduled to make an appearance Saturday, the Commodores will treat Saturday as a must-win affair.

Cats-Gators on Tuesday won't have the same air of desperation. Nor will it be as easy as Saturday when Kentucky turned the Colonial Life Center into something akin to a convention center ballroom playing host to a meeting of the UK Alumni Center.

South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn downplayed the preponderance of Blue backers in Columbia — "They do that all over the league," he said. "It's not just unique to here" — but that had to sting as much as Davis' eight swats.

These first nine games, playing the league's lesser lights, the Cats sure looked far and away the best team in the conference, if not the nation. These next two, however, should help tell us if that's true.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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