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March 7, 2013The game is the same, no matter how different the environment may be, home or away.
Same ball. Same basket. Same goal.
"The game feeling is the same," forward Willie Cauley-Stein said, "whether you're getting booed or whether you're getting cheered on."
But Kentucky hasn't looked like the same team outside of Rupp Arena. The Wildcats are 4-4 on the road in Southeastern Conference play entering Thursday's game at Georgia but have lost their last three by not-so-close margins. The Cats looked uncomfortable and unprepared at Florida (17 points), Tennessee (30) and Arkansas (13).
"I'd like to tell you that we're still a pretty good road team. It's just the last two road games, we've been abysmal," coach John Calipari said. "And it's been all about physical play. Our guard play has to be better. It just has to be."
UK's has suffered setbacks as the geography varies. Kentucky has averaged 1.16 points per possession in eight conference home games but just 0.98 points per possession on the road. At their season average of 68 possessions in a game, that amounts to a 12-point swing.
Three main differences account for most of the change.
The Cats average 13.4 assists and 12.6 turnovers at home; on the road, those numbers are 11.5 and 15.4.
Kentucky has an average rebounding margin of plus-7 at home; on the road, that falls to minus-0.6.
And UK shoots 50.7 percent from the field in Rupp Arena but 45.1 percent in opposing buildings.
"It's something that we're still learning and trying to figure out," Calipari said. "Like I said, we just, at some point the light's gotta go on."
The defense, meanwhile, is virtually unchanged (allowing 1.02 points per possession at home versus 1.03 on the road).
All of this will come into play as Kentucky goes on the road again to play Georgia in an important game for its postseason chances. The Bulldogs are 5-3 in Stegemen Coliseum in conference play, with wins against LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, South Carolina and (most recently) Tennessee, and losses against Florida, Mississippi State and Alabama.
"They're good at home," Calipari said. "They play well in that building. We're going to have to play a good basketball game to have a chance to win."
Under the Hood
One reason UK hasn't won a road game since beating Texas A&M more than a month ago is a lack of toughness away from home.
And on the road it's easy to go into hiding when things go wrong.
"I think we've got a bunch of good guys that are still learning, and when stuff gets a little ragged they're not at their best, and that's were we got to learn," Calipari said.
Some of the veterans on the team are making it their responsibility to help speed up the learning process.
Jon Hood won't fill up the stat sheet, but when he's in the game he tries to set an example.
"I just want to come in and bring energy and try to bring as much of that as possible and as much toughness and fight that I can," Hood said.
Specifically Hood has put more effort in his rebounding. He's averaged 3.5 rebounds per game in UK's last two games, 2.4 per game more than his season average.
Hood's four rebounds against Arkansas were a season high.
"With rebounding, there's a little luck to it too," Hood said. "Yeah, last game they all just kind of fell to me. This game they might not, whatever. I just try to bring energy and toughness and fight."
The Southeastern Conference is filled with prolific scorers. Tennessee has Jordan McRae; Texas A&M's Elston Turner torched Kentucky by dropping 40; and Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson leads the conference in scoring at 19.6 points per game.
And although Kentavious Caldwell-Pope doesn't get the recognition of the other scorers, he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the best scorers in the nation.
Caldwell-Pope averages more points per game (18) than the rest of Georgia's starters averages combined (16.8). He's also one of 11 NCAA Division I players to have scored in double digits every game this season.
Caldwell-Pope scoring at least 10 against UK seems like a safe bet, if the Cats' defense against premiere scorers this season is any indication.
McRae, Turner and Henderson combined to score 120 points against UK in five games this season.
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Caldwell-Pope poses a matchup up problem for the Cats. Alex Poythress failed trying to guard Turner earlier this season, but Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays were able to slow down Henderson at times.
Calipari has used a defender-by-committee approach on most top scorers this season, but he's unsure what he'll do to slow down Caldwell-Pope.
"I don't know (who will guard Caldwell-Pope)," Calipari said. "Don't know yet. He's good, though. He's a good player."