First place is on the line when Kentucky plays at South Carolina on Wednesday night.
But while first-year coach Darrin Horn spoke of South Carolina's rebuilding effort being "ahead of schedule," UK Coach Billy Gillispie emphasized his team's need to improve.
So strongly did Gillispie cite decision-making and rebounding as areas of concern that you had to remind yourself that the Cats are in a two-way tie for first place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
Rebounding boils down to one of two strategies: Block out or simply go for the missed shot with zeal, Gillispie said. The Cats do neither.
"Right now, we're in no-man's land," the UK coach said. "We've been in no-man's land all year long. We're not blocking out and we're not going for the ball."
Gillispie acknowledged being perplexed about why Kentucky gives up a dangerous number of offensive rebounds to the opposition, a lapse that waters down one of the nation's best defenses against initial shots. SEC opponents are shooting only 38.1 percent against the Cats. That percentage might be less than 30 if the opposition didn't get second-chance opportunities.
"I don't know if it's personnel," Gillispie said. "I don't know if it's coaching. I don't know if it's lack of aggressiveness. I don't know if it's expecting someone else to do something. But nothing's happening right now."
Gillispie called out starting big men Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson as each being capable of getting "seven or eight" defensive rebounds per game.
Gillispie cited decision-making as an offensive hindrance. The Cats are holding on to the ball too long rather than moving it with purpose.
"That's something that happens in November and December," he said. "I've just been really disappointed in how we haven't moved the ball better. That's one of the greatest reasons we've struggled on offense."
When asked about DeAndre Liggins, Gillispie noted the freshman's eagerness to make big plays. The UK coach said one reason he recently showed the team tape of his Texas A&M team of 2006-07 was to give an example of making simple high-percentage plays.
As for first place, Gillispie pointed out that each team will have to play three games after Wednesday.
"A lot of people want to make judgments that this team has done this. This is where you are. But there is 25 percent of the conference schedule still left."
Wants big-time pressure
Said Horn, "We need to start off today by acknowledging that tomorrow is a great day for basketball in our state and our program, simply because these are the situations you want to be in at this time of the year."
As Horn went on, he was also reflective, and mentioned being "ahead of schedule." He invoked Steve Spurrier and Mike Krzyzewski. He mentioned being here six years from now.
But it all came back to the same idea: The Gamecocks (19-6 overall, 8-4 SEC) got to this point with a certain mentality, and they needed to keep it that way. Twice Horn pointed out that the team was picked (by the media) to finish fifth in the division.
"When I came here we came here to build a program. Doing that is a process," Horn said. "Our philosophy in that process is you take care of what you can take care of, control what you can control, so that one day over a period of time, you hope that you're Kentucky.
"You hope you're the team that's picked first or second every year in the league race, who the conference championship runs through, who's hung all the banners, so that when you get to a game like this, there is a pressure on you."
Won't be experimenting
Meanwhile, South Carolina, which hasn't had a winning SEC record since 1998, looked forward to the competition for first place. But Horn noted that the Gamecocks still are aiming long-term for the kind of sustained success exhibited by Kentucky.
In dismissing the chance of his team feeling pressure, Horn noted that UK might feel the pressure of continuing a streak of NCAA Tournament appearances that dates to 1992.
"We're not there yet," the South Carolina coach said. "We're getting to play for it right now, which is great, which is ahead of schedule. But I think the important thing is our guys continue to learn the process that it takes. So we're not focusing on standings. We don't spend a ton of time talking about what we have to do to get to those standings."
Gillispie and Horn acknowledged that the game is big.
"But at the same time ... we're not going to do anything different in basketball," Horn said. "We're not going to come up and play some special defense that we have spent zero time working on. We have gotten to this point because we've gotten good at what we do."