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February 10, 2012
Cats face Vandy, 'Memorial Magic' on Saturday
Yes, the benches are far away.
They're still underneath the baskets at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym, and that's a challenge for No. 1 Kentucky when it faces the Commodores Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.
But it's hardly the primary one.
"I mean, whether we win or lose will be based on how we play versus how they play," UK coach John Calipari said. "It's not going to be anything about a building or fans. We play on the road, we've had tough environments. We've won in tough environments, we've lost in a tough environment. It's how your team plays and how their team plays."
And the Commodores (17-7, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) can play well enough to give Kentucky (24-1, 10-0) fits.
Vanderbilt isn't unbeatable at home - the Commodores are 11-4 at Memorial this season - but it's the sort of team capable of presenting problems for UK anywhere. The Commodores have a post presence in Festus Ezeli surrounded by a plethora of three-point shooters, led by John Jenkins, the SEC leader in three-pointers made.
"They're a terrific team," Calipari said. "They're big. Their guard play is good. Point guard play is good. Obviously they shoot the ball."
And then there's the matter of Memorial Magic.
There are those benches under the baskets - "You can't really look to your coach much when you're going to the opposite side," said freshman guard Marquis Teague, who's making his first trip to Vandy - and the oddity of playing on a raised court.
And there's the Commodores' magical home-court history against top-ranked teams.
Vanderbilt has won its last four home games against No. 1 teams, beating North Carolina in 1987, Kentucky in 1993, Florida in 2007 and Tennessee in 2008 when each held the top spot in college basketball.
The Commodores are 4-10 all-time against Kentucky when the Wildcats hold the No. 1 ranking, including 3-4 at Memorial Gym. And Vandy's home court figures to be as fired-up as ever for a visit from No. 1.
ESPN's College GameDay show will broadcast live from Vanderbilt on Saturday morning, and the UK-Vandy game gets the network's showcase 9 p.m. time slot.
"I imagine they're ready for this, their fans are ready for this, Nashville's ready for this, the administration's ready for this, their parents are ready for this, and they've probably been ready for two weeks," Calipari said. "We've got to go up there and say, 'OK, let's see where we are right now, let's play as well as we can play, let's see if we're getting better.'"
Defensively, the Wildcats already have hit their stride. Offensively, Calipari sees room for improvement. So he added some wrinkles this week in preparation for Vanderbilt.
"Offensively, we're still trying to figure each other out," Calipari said. "We're trying to zero in on what do we do and when do we do it. I think you see we grind it out late in games, we do a good job of that. Maybe in the guts of games we're still trying to figure it out. I tweaked some things (in practice) just to get them to think a little bit out on the basketball court.
There will be plenty to think about. Forward Terrence Jones said that last season at Vanderbilt - an 81-77 UK loss - Calipari would put "five or six" possessions' worth of plays during timeouts so that he wouldn't have to communicate with his team from a far-away bench.
That's just one of the challenges that await the Wildcats Saturday.
But Jones said the UK is ready for all of them.
"I like playing on the road, especially with this team," Jones said. "I just think we take it as a challenge and take being No. 1 as a badge of honor. We really compete with other teams with them playing their best at home. I just like this team and how we're playing on the road."