Though Kentucky overcame a sluggish first half to win its SEC opener, coach John Calipari needs his team to be focused for an entire game in order to have success in the league - especially on the road.
The No. 14 Wildcats will attempt to snap a six-game road skid Saturday when they face a Vanderbilt team hoping to get by without its leading scorer for the rest of the season.
Playing for the first time since a 73-66 win over then-No. 6 Louisville on Dec. 28, Kentucky (11-3, 1-0) fell behind 12-2 and shot 37.1 percent to trail Mississippi State by three at halftime Wednesday. The Wildcats regrouped in the second half by shooting 65.4 percent and using a 27-6 run to pave the way for an 85-63 home victory.
Though the Wildcats have won three straight since losing 82-77 at then-No. 18 North Carolina on Dec. 14, Wednesday marked the fifth time they've trailed at halftime. Kentucky has shot 44.8 percent in the first half this season compared to 51.4 in the second.
"The biggest thing they must learn, and they just haven't yet, is that every team that comes in has unbelievable energy to start the game ... and we don't seem to think that matters," Calipari said. "Maybe I've got to start different people."
Calipari is not quite prepared to bench his starters, and certainly not freshman James Young, who has totaled 44 points and 20 rebounds in the last two games. However, he wants the Wildcats to understand the importance of giving maximum effort from start to finish.
"It's hard to win on the road, hard to win in the league," Calipari said. "It's crazy.
"You've got to be as excited to play them as they are to play you. Are you inspired to play them?"
The Wildcats must be if they're to end the program's recent struggles away from home. Kentucky dropped its final four SEC road games last season by an average of 17.5 points and then fell 59-57 at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
In its only true road contest this season against the Tar Heels, Kentucky shot 40.0 percent through the first 20 minutes and trailed by three at the break.
Kentucky has won two straight and three of four at Vanderbilt (8-5, 0-1), but those meetings were decided by a combined 14 points. The Wildcats won both regular-season meetings last season, but a Commodores team that finished 16-17 added to Kentucky's 2012-13 misery by knocking Calipari's squad out of the SEC tournament with a 64-48 win in the semifinals.
It marked the second straight season Vanderbilt defeated the Wildcats in the conference tournament. The first one was a 71-64 Commodores win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in the 2012 final.
"That's always an exciting game with the fans," said Vanderbilt forward Rod Odom, who averages 13.8 points and a team-leading 6.1 rebounds.
Kentucky might be in a good position to avenge the latest tournament loss while the Commodores try to press on without Eric McClellan. The point guard, who averaged 14.3 points, was dismissed from the team Thursday for violating academic policy.
He was initially suspended for the spring semester with the sophomore apologizing and promising to return this summer, but Stallings announced that the decision had changed based on new information.
McClellan's absence leaves Vanderbilt with seven scholarship players.
"I had seven last year, and nobody felt sorry for us," said Calipari, who dealt with a variety of injuries while going 21-12 after beginning last season ranked third in the Top 25.
In Vanderbilt's first game without McClellan on Tuesday, Odom had 20 points and 10 rebounds to help the Commodores rally from a 16-point hole before falling 68-63 at Alabama.
Vanderbilt has dropped four straight against ranked opponents since the 2012 conference tournament victory over Kentucky.
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