Kentucky's knack for rising to the occasion figures to be put to the test against Vanderbilt on Saturday. A loss would drop UK two games behind the Commodores with a rematch in Nashville next month part of a stretch of five road trips in an eight-game stretch.
"It's an important game," UK Coach John Calipari said Friday. "We're playing for first place. And we're playing a veteran team that will not give you the game."
Calipari likened Vandy to his top-quality Massachusetts teams of the 1990s: deep, versatile and talented.
"You can't worry about one guy," he said. "Every guy they've got can shoot the three, can bounce the ball, can pass the ball," he said. "It's like my UMass teams. Everybody is a basketball player. And they're physically tough. You're not going to 'punk' them."
At 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference, Vanderbilt is off to its best league start since 1965-66. Five players average eight or more points per league game. Eight average double-digit minutes.
"Our defense has gotten better from a month ago," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said. "But it's still not where it needs to be. Our numbers aren't great. But our offense is pretty solid. Our taking care of the ball, and our rebounding, have been pretty good. What I like the best, though, is that we have a very good competitive nature. We've got depth, and we've got bodies, willing and able bodies, and I think it's helped us get off to this start."
The Commodores have had a knack for rallying from behind. In four of the five SEC victories, Vandy trailed at halftime.
"We play good in the second half for some reason," Stallings said. "Don't know what the deal has been. I'd like to see us play good in both halves. We've been a good second-half team and a good end-of-the-game team. We pride ourselves on being good at the end of games and so far we have been."
Wall the best?
When asked if John Wall was one of best freshmen he'd seen play, Stallings refused to bite.
"Oh, I don't know if he's the best I've ever seen, that would be a little strong," the Vandy coach said. "But he's terrific, and he's as good as advertised. He's an incredible basketball player. He's got all of the skills and intangibles for a guy his size. And he's handled the pressure of being in the spotlight very well, at least from afar.
"But, I'm not ready to label him the best I've ever seen. I've seen some pretty good players. But, he's certainly in a class by himself this year in college basketball, and may be the best player I've seen this year. ... if (DeMarcus) Cousins and the other guys on his team aren't."
Patrick Patterson supported the idea that President Obama's congratulatory call Tuesday afternoon could have helped distract No. 1 UK in the loss at South Carolina that night.
"Everything was crashing in," Patterson said. "It was a load on our shoulders. That could have played a part in us being more pressured."
When asked about the reported incident between Cousins and a fan after UK's loss at South Carolina, Calipari cited "somebody" saying a video showed Cousins was not involved.
"Did the radio guy apologize?" Calipari said, referring to a radio/television reporter who first mentioned the incident. "Then it came out it wasn't true, so he did apologize, right?"
Then Calipari added in a sarcastic tone, "He probably did. He's a good human being."
The reporter, Bob Shields, who works for WLTX television and WNKT radio in Columbia, wrote in an e-mail that he had not apologized.
"There is no question in my mind that I saw a large Kentucky player throw two little uppercuts to the fan's face as he was rushing the court," Shields wrote. "It's possible it could have been someone else (other than Cousins) but I have absolutely no doubts about what I saw."
One SEC coach has called Vandy freshman John Jenkins the league's best shooter since former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Chris Lofton. Through five SEC games, Jenkins has made 52.4 percent of his three-point shots (11 of 21). For the season, he's made 45 of 92 (48.9 percent).
■ Calipari's Memphis teams did not lose two straight games in the last four seasons. In the 10 losses of those seasons that came before post-season play, Memphis won the next game by an average of 23.4 points.
■ Vandy's record against No. 1-ranked teams is 7-14. The Commodores are 4-10 against UK teams ranked No. 1. That includes 0-6 in Lexington.
■ Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes will call the game for ESPN.
Kentucky 4-1 19-1
South Carolina 3-312-8
Mississippi State 3-215-5
Louisiana State 0-69-11
LSU at Mississippi St., 1:30 p.m.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky, 4 p.m.
Georgia at South Carolina, 7 p.m.
Alabama at Auburn, 4 p.m.
Florida at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Arkansas at Mississippi, 7 p.m.