To begin a weeklong road trip that ends with Friday night’s game at Kentucky, the UT Martin team left its campus at 4:30 a.m. last Saturday.
The team rode a bus two hours to Nashville to board a flight to Buffalo. After playing at Canisius on Monday, the team rode a bus three hours to Pittsburgh for a game Wednesday at Duquesne.
After a come-from-behind victory at Duquesne, the UT Martin team reboarded the bus for a six-hour ride from Pittsburgh to Lexington. The traveling party reached Lexington at 4 a.m. Thursday.
This was doing three-games-in-five-days the hard way.
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“We don’t quite have the budget that Kentucky has, so we have to make it work,” Coach Anthony Stewart said Tuesday.
As for Thanksgiving dinner, bologna sandwiches on the bus would make for a better story. But, Stewart said the plan was for the team to eat turkey and all the traditional fixings upon arriving in Lexington on Thursday.
A travel schedule that would make the Marquis de Sade smile gave Stewart one more reason to be thankful for having a veteran team. Veteran players — the Skyhawks start three seniors and a junior — can roll with the punches.
UT Martin showed resilience in coming from behind to win at Duquesne 66-63. That improved the team’s record to 5-1.
“For some teams, the older you are, the better you are,” Stewart said, “and that has worked for us.”
Of course, John Calipari has taken Kentucky basketball to new heights with so-called one-and-done players. UT Martin, which has won 20 or more games in the last two seasons, tries to rely on older, experienced players.
Different strokes for different folks, Stewart said.
“You have to look at the institution you’re at and the league in which you play,” he said. “In order to be successful, in my own humble opinion, in the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference), you need to have very mature, game-ready guys. . . .
“The guys with experience have the knowledge and the wherewithal to deal with adverse settings. We like to identify those sort of guys as well as mix in a fair share of freshmen.”
Stewart subscribes to the widely held view that older, more experienced players help mid-major programs narrow the gap with elite Division I programs like Kentucky.
“I know Kentucky’s freshmen, and their team as a whole, they’re very, very talented,” the UT Martin coach said. “But I think you can combat those things and close the gap with some experience and your ability to get some leadership.”
Five UT Martin players average double-digit points. “One of our strengths,” Stewart said. The team also has a high percentage of assists.
UT Martin caught Calipari’s eye by playing competitively at Ole Miss. An 86-83 defeat suggested the Skyhawks can compete at the Southeastern Conference level.
“I’d have to agree with that,” Stewart said. “We had the ball with 19 seconds to go down one. We didn’t execute a few things I wish we’d done better. We also got a couple of questionable calls. That’s how it goes when you’re on the road.
“But I was pleased with our effort. And I told the guys, just as long as we go out and play as hard as we can play, and play together, I’ll take the outcome.”
UT Martin at No. 1 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 5-0, UT Martin 5-1
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 124-50 on Nov. 26, 1994, in Lexington.