LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—If No. 2 Kentucky was playing for style points, South Carolina already erased the ultimate one last month: a potential zero in the loss column.
While some of the Wildcats (26-1, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) acknowledge they wouldn’t mind exacting a little payback on Devan Downey and Co. in Thursday’s rematch at Rupp Arena, coach John Calipari says it’s too late in the season and his team is too good to be worrying about style points—and certainly revenge.
He wants a top seed in the NCAA tournament but figures if the wins keep coming—even occasionally ugly ones—that will take care of itself.
“If we win it at a halfcourt bank shot, I’ll be happy,” Calipari said Wednesday.
South Carolina (14-12, 5-7), behind Downey’s 30 points, handed Kentucky its only loss last month with a 68-62 upset in Columbia—the Gamecocks’ first win over a team then nationally ranked No. 1.
Going in, conditions seemed ripe for yet another Kentucky cakewalk. The undefeated record. The return to the top of the polls. Even President Barack Obama’s call that afternoon to congratulate the Wildcats on a fundraising effort for the earthquake victims in Haiti.
But then, the buzzer sounded. Fans rushed the Colonial Life Arena floor (sparking a $25,000 fine), and Kentucky’s record was perfect no more.
“You want to get them back more than anything,” freshman forward Daniel Orton said. “It gets the Adrenalin running.”
Calipari wants his team to feel the Adrenalin but insists the motive shouldn’t be revenge. South Carolina was on a three-game losing streak entering the last meeting with the Wildcats and is on another such streak now.
Kentucky will be heavy favorites yet again, and while Calipari acknowledges another upset is always possible, he’s more concerned about showing progress. That starts with stopping Downey, who leads the SEC in scoring and who managed his typical 30 points against the Wildcats even when missing 21 of his 29 shots.
“Downey’s going to take 30 shots,” Calipari said. “That’s what he’s going to do. Guard him.”
Easier said than done, even for Kentucky’s much-bigger defenders. Orton says he has been practicing defensive against the Wildcats’ own shifty guards, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. Sometimes, the circus shots just fall in—and that’s what happened with Downey late in the last game.
Orton also says there may have been some hometown officiating down in Columbia.
“Down there we couldn’t even touch him really,” Orton said. “Everything we did to him was a foul. Maybe we’ll have a little more leeway this time.”
Guard DeAndre Liggins says he sees no reason why Kentucky should allow Downey to light up the scoreboard again.
“We’d done a good job, but he’s the leader of that team,” Liggins said. “He takes the most shots. The other guys know that. We’ll have to do a good job of stopping him and making other people beat us.”
Downey’s heroics against Kentucky include one of his career highlights last year at Rupp, when his late bucket helped the Gamecocks pull out a 78-77 victory.
Although Calipari says he got “scared” after watching game tape from last month’s loss, he realizes the Wildcats are rolling right now. After knocking off Vanderbilt in Nashville Saturday, Kentucky’s lead in the SEC East is two games, and it would take a monumental collapse for college basketball’s all-time winningest team to avoid winning the regular season conference championship.
Some pundits have even argued the Wildcats’ No. 1 seed is inevitable, although Calipari insists he doesn’t agree. Still, he says, the focus now is on surviving and improving. His team is young, with three freshman starters— including Wall, who could be a top overall pick in the NBA draft and figures to push Downey for player of the year honors.
Kentucky’s other two freshmen, Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins, have had occasional on-court flare-ups with their tempers. Those are the things that need to get corrected before tournament time, Calipari says.
“We have to be mature,” he said. “We don’t want to put ourselves in a position to lose a national championship opportunity because in a 30-second decision you can’t keep your wits about you.”
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