LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky’s young stars have handled their introduction to the Southeastern Conference with near perfection.
It was on full display Tuesday night as the Wildcats withstood everything thrown their way by a resilient Mississippi State team and then weathered debris thrown at the players by upset Bulldogs fans after No. 2 Kentucky’s overtime victory.
Now, the only thing standing between the Wildcats (25-1, 10-1) and the SEC crown this season might be No. 17 Vanderbilt.
A win against the Commodores (20-5, 9-2) on Saturday would give Kentucky a two-game lead in the conference standings and would cement their conference supremacy, assuming they win out in the final two weeks of the regular season.
For his part, Kentucky coach John Calipari is approaching the game with little tension, explaining that he isn’t contemplating what the results would mean for his team.
“The bottom line is this will be a very difficult game for us” Calipari said. “If we win, it will be a great victory. But it’s a game that’s not one-and-done. It’s not a tournament game. It’s not a big game because it’s just February.”
A loss to the Commodores would throw the title race wide open. By beating the South Carolina team Kentucky lost to in January, a team which ranks higher than the Georgia team Vanderbilt lost to in league play, the Commodores could win the conference if they tied the series against Kentucky.
Kentucky players aren’t focusing on any of that logic.
“If we win this game, it’ll definitely be an advantage for us,” forward Ramon Harris said. “But if we don’t then we’ll just turn around and prepare for the next one.”
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is preparing for a serious battle.
“I’m excited we’re playing for first place (in the SEC),” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “It will take one of our great performances to win that game. But, we’ve done it before.”
After facing a record crowd at Mississippi State, Calipari explained that Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium will be another challenging environment for his team to play in. The layout of the gym makes it especially hard for coaches to communicate with their team. With benches located at the baseline of the court instead of the sideline, Calipari said he will be unable to give his normal orders and will need freshman guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe to give their own commands to the team.
“It is really hard to talk to your team, because if they turn around and look at you they get the ball stolen,” Calipari said. “So what I’m telling Wall and (Bledsoe) is that they are going to have to run this team.”
Vanderbilt is undefeated at home this season. Calipari said he was preparing his team in practice for a combative crowd.
“We play in these arenas to record crowds, everywhere we go it’s sold out,” Calipari said. “But we know every game we play is an energy, high-charged game, and so we know nobody is going to stun us with their effort.”
Stallings, too, said he is preparing for his home fans to be a major factor.
“I have a feeling our crowd will be ready, and I think we’ll give them the kind of performance they are accustomed to seeing,” he said.
After beating Mississippi on Thursday night, the Commodores will have limited time to regroup.
“Everyone is looking forward toward it, even if we got a day turnaround,” said Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy, who scored 27 points against the Rebels.
Ogilvy didn’t have as much success against the Wildcats in their first meeting, as he was limited for most of the night and notched just 12 points and four rebounds.
Calipari said he expects Ogilvy to make amends this time around.
“I imagine there’s a challenge there for him to do better,” Calipari said. “We know he is really good.”
The Wildcats have been notorious for jumping out to big leads and then letting the opposing team creep back as the game wears on. Calipari said that he wouldn’t be surprised if that same scenario happened against the Commodores.
“We are talented enough to beat every one, but we play in a way that everyone can beat us,” Calipari said “We’re breaking down defensively, we’re missing shots. We’re not able to lock down for 40 minutes. We make plays that keep everyone in games.”
“There’s no illusion we’ll walk in there and beat them by 20,” Calipari said.