Nobody has forgotten how poorly UK played on the road in the Southeastern Conference last season.
Nobody’s been reminded, either.
What ultimately became the Cats’ first Final Four season since 1998 began with UK losing six of its eight conference road games, beating only South Carolina and Tennessee away from Rupp Arena during regular-season league play. The cocktail was mixed perfectly; it was a team relying more heavily on youth than any other John Calipari-coached team to date, the polar opposite of league teams that were less talented but had played together (and played together in adverse situations) much more.
Calipari said another factor was that the team last had yet to find its identity before the road schedule really picked up. The third-year UK coach said this year’s team already knows what it is, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
Still, Calipari said things get wacky on the road. Fans react differently, so players react differently. Considering that 11 of UK’s 16 games this season have been at Rupp Arena, including 10 of the last 12, and also considering that the Cats have only played in one true road game (a Dec. 10 loss to Indiana), things will be different on the road because a form of muscle memory has locked the Cats in to know what playing is like.
On the road, Marquis Teague said one can’t rely on the same muscle memory that gets one through a typical home game. Home and road games require different skills.
“You got to execute and just listen,” Teague said. “It’s real loud in there. You have to be able to relay calls and hear what other people are saying out there.”
Of the seven-man rotation on which Calipari relies almost exclusively, only three have road experience in the SEC: Senior Darius Miller, and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Freshmen Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer have only seen Indiana as a road game, and have never played through a conference road game.
Even considering the lack of experience, Teague said neither he nor his peers have been reminded of UK’s away struggles last year.
“No, we haven’t really talked about it much this year,” he said. “But I saw some games last year and saw how they played. We want to go out and play hard and get wins like we would a home game. We just want to go there and execute, do what we got to do to win.”
Wednesday’s game against Auburn may not be the best example of a rowdy road game; the Tigers have averaged 5,211 fans in their nine home games so far this season. Even in tiny Auburn Arena, that’s just 57.1 percent capacity. Rupp Arena at 57.1-percent capacity would equate to 13,133 fans, a number that this year’s Blue-White Game fell just short of with 12,134 in attendance.
Still, Calipari is prepping his team for the worst. The Cats lost in a similarly empty arena last year at Arkansas (13,472 in attendance; 69.5-percent capacity).
But he’s not reminding them of what happened last year, either.
“We were pretty young. This year, we are really young, too,” Eloy Vargas said. “But we’ve got a couple guys that are kind of older now, like T-Jones and Doron and D-Miller, so I think we’ve got a better chance to come out and play and know how they’re going to play.”
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