Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew chuckled when asked about Kentucky’s skill level. “Oh, it’s NBA talent,” he said Monday.
Then he saluted UK Coach John Calipari’s ability to get that talent to play with effort on defense and selflessness on offense.
So how can Vandy believe it can defeat Kentucky on Tuesday night?
“Hopefully, some Memorial Magic will kick in,” Drew said with a smile, “and they won’t make as many shots as they normally do.”
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Drew was talking about Memorial Gym, which as UK guard Dominique Hawkins put it, is Vandy’s “weird and funky” homecourt.
More than one opposing coach has suggested that the magic is in how many calls go Vandy’s way rather than shots going in the basket.
In one of Rick Pitino’s first games there as UK coach, he complained afterward about the many fouls called on his team. He didn’t know you needed to wear “pantyhose” to play in the Southeastern Conference, he said on his postgame radio show.
Nolan Richardson echoed the sentiment after a game on Jan. 20, 1993, the same day former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president.
Vandy shot 45 free throws in beating Arkansas 102-89. Arkansas shot 10. (Earlier that week, Vandy made 36 of 43 free throws in beating Kentucky 101-86. UK shot 19 free throws.)
“When you look at the stat sheet and see how many free throws they shoot at home, it really bothers you,” Richardson said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with magic.”
Of course, Memorial Gym’s distinguishing feature is the placement of team benches behind the baselines. All other benches in all other Division I arenas are on the sideline.
For half the game, the action is on the far side of halfcourt. Even though that’s been alleviated by a rule change allowing coaches to venture along the sideline, the benches were part of UK Coach John Calipari’s instruction to his team last season.
“I remember he was telling us, the guys who hadn’t been there, like, don’t turn around looking for guidance,” Mychal Mulder said.
UK lost 74-62 at Vandy last season.
“The biggest challenge is probably hearing Coach Cal call plays,” Hawkins said. “… We’ll have to call our own plays.”
It’s something the Cats practice, Hawkins said.
What also makes Memorial Gym unique is the wide-open space between the sidelines and the first row of seats, which are below court level.
Vandy’s record in Memorial Gym is 778-216, a winning percentage of .782.
The current Cats have won each of their first three SEC games by 23 or more points. You have to go back to UK’s only unbeaten team — 1953-54 — to find a precedent in program history.
This season’s Cats’ average margin of victory in league play is 30.4 points. The 1953-54 UK team won its first three SEC games by an average margin of 43 points.
To explain the early dominance, Hawkins said, “We’ve got four great freshmen … and each one of them brings great ability to play at a high level. I’m not surprised at all that they’ve been playing so well.”
A thinly-veiled question about Hamidou Diallo did not get a response. The five-star guard committed to UK last weekend.
When asked if any new players were at UK’s practice, Calipari said, “Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.”
Then Calipari turned to an aide and asked, “Am I allowed to talk (about Diallo)?”
When told he wasn’t, Calipari quipped, “Who are we talking about?”
Memorial Gym opened on Dec. 6, 1952. It is tied for the eighth-oldest home arena among schools in the so-called Power 5 conferences.
The seven older are Hec Edmundson Pavilion at Washington (1927), Williams Arena at Minnesota (1928), Haas Pavilion at Cal (1933), Gallagher-Iba Arena at Oklahoma State (1938), Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke (1940) and Gill Coliseum at Oregon State (1949).
Northeastern has the oldest arena still in use. Its Matthews Arena opened on April 16, 1910.
With back surgery sidelining Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski for several weeks, Calipari was asked if he considered undergoing hip surgery rather than hobble through the 2013-14 season.
“If I had to, I would have,” he said. “I would say my health would come first.”
Vandy center Luke Kornet’s grandfather, Milton Kornet, was a UK professor. His father, Frank Kornet, played for Lexington Catholic before playing for Vandy. Luke Kornet has cousins who attend UK. “They’re definitely on Vanderbilt’s side,” he said. … Brent Musberger, Sean Farnham and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung will call the game for ESPN.