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February 19, 2013

As Vandy visits, Cats still hope for turnaround

Put the protagonist in peril or you don't have much of a story. Overcoming odds. Battling adversity. That's the stuff epics are made of.

So far, this Kentucky basketball season hasn't looked so epic.

But John Calipari isn't giving up hope that this story can have a happy ending for his Wildcats (17-8, 8-4), who host Vanderbilt (10-14, 4-8) on Wednesday.

"Whatever we want to make of this season, we can do," Calipari said Tuesday. "We could be the story of the year - of recovery and all that. We can do that if they choose to do that."

If the hero of such a tale needs first to hit rock bottom, then the Cats fit the bill.

On Saturday, in Kentucky's first game without freshman Nerlens Noel - out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee - the Wildcats were trounced 88-58 at Tennessee.

That sort of start to Kentucky's post-Noel quest for an identity cast some dark shadows over the remainder of the season. The NCAA Tournament is far from a sure thing. There are no guaranteed wins left.

But the Cats insist that loss won't linger.

"I don't think it affects our belief," guard Jarrod Polson said. "We think we're a good team."

Calipari keeps agreeing. But that's not enough.

"We've got to have that belief in each other," guard Julius Mays said. "It can't just be (Calipari) having the belief. We're the guys out there playing. The players make the plays. The coach can only do so much."

And the players, Mays said, aren't doing enough.

They didn't in last week's 69-52 loss at Florida (in which Noel was injured) nor in Saturday's beating at Tennessee.

"I just felt like guys didn't come to fight," Mays said. "I don't know if it was because the effect of Nerlens was still going on, but I kind of think that was a cop-out. In order to be good and to win, you've got to be able to play through adversity."

Kentucky has more than its share to face now.

The Commodores hardly are among the SEC's elite, but they're a solid defensive team facing a UK squad that struggles to score. And given Kentucky's performance at Tennessee, the Cats certainly don't look like a lock to beat anyone.

Mays said UK is only looking forward, not back. But Polson said there are lessons to be learned from Saturday's implosion in Knoxville.

"They played a great game," Polson said. "Obviously we played terrible. Sometimes games like that happen. Yeah, maybe Nerlens affected it a little bit, but I don't know if we'd have done any better with Nerlens in that game. We just didn't play well. I guess it kind of was a wakeup call and made us realize that we do need to work on some things."

And there's time to work on those things, to rewrite the story.

And though Mays doesn't want his teammates push the panic button yet, he also knows that time's running out to change this season's storyline.

"I don't like to have the mindset that your back's against the wall, because when you play with that much pressure you're liable to play bad," Mays said. "I just want guys to play open, with a free mind, but to know that we got work to do."

KENTUCKY (17-8, 8-4 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (119-22 in fourth season at Kentucky; 522-160 in 21st season overall)
Last game: Lost to Tennessee 88-58
Roster | Stats
VANDERBILT (10-14, 4-8 SEC)
Coach: Kevin Stallings (271-173 in 14th season at Vanderbilt; 394-236 in 20th season overall)
Last game: Beat Texas A&M 63-56
Roster | Stats
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Jarrod Polson Jr. 6-2/189 2.7 1.5
G Julius Mays Sr. 6-2/192 9.4 2.8
G Archie Goodwin Fr. 6-5/198 13.6 4.5
F Willie Cauley-Stein Fr. 7-0/244 7.5 5.3
F Kyle Wiltjer So. 6-10/239 11.8 4.6
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Kedren Johnson So. 6-4/215 13.7 3.9
G Kevin Bright Fr. 6-5/210 6.3 5.5
G Dai-Jon Parker So. 6-3/190 6.6 3.3
F Rod Odom So. 6-9/212 10.2 4.3
F Shelden Jeter Fr. 6-7/215 5.3 3.4
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network (Clay Matvick play by play, Joe Dean Jr. analyst); SEC Network affiliates.
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 128/XM 200.
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: TBA

Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 137-45
At Lexington: Kentucky leads 76-14
Coaches' records: Calipari 7-2 vs. Vanderbilt; Stallings 10-19 vs. Kentucky

Last meeting: Kentucky 60, Vanderbilt 58, Jan. 10, Nashville, Tenn.
The Wildcats controlled the first half and held a 17-point lead in the second before the Commodores answered with an 18-0 run. The teams traded leads down the stretch, but Kyle Wiltjer hit a jump shot with 1:57 to put UK in front to stay. There was late controversy when Nerlens Noel's jumper narrowly beat the expiring shot clock. Ryan Harrow led Kentucky with 16 points. Noel added 13 and Archie Goodwin 12. Kedren Johnson had 18 for Vandy.

Keys to the Game
1. Road Woes: Vanderbilt is, by most any measure, having a down year. But the Commodores have been particularly bad away from home. Vandy is 3-8 away from Memorial Gym this season, including 2-6 in true road games. The Commodores are 1-4 on the road in SEC play, but with wildly varied results. Two of Vandy's four conference road losses (at Tennessee, at LSU) are by a single point. The other two came by 23 points at Arkansas and 22 points at Missouri.

2. Containing Kedren: Kedren Johnson has been Vanderbilt's most reliable scorer this season, but he's hit a rough patch of late. After scoring fewer than 10 points three times in Vandy's first 20 games, he's done it three times in the Commodores' past four. Johnson, who's averaging 13.7 points per game this season, is averaging eight per game over the past four. Johnson had 18 points in Vanderbilt's loss to UK last month. Johnson remains the SEC's most-improved scorer. His season scoring average is up a league-best 10.6 points per game

3. Precious Points: Despite Vanderbilt's struggles, the Commodores don't make it easy to score. Vandy is allowing an average of 60.3 points per game this season. That's the lowest scoring average for Vanderbilt opponents since the 1950-51 team held teams to 60.5 per game. The Commodores are giving up 61.2 points per game in league play, and only two SEC teams have scored more than 61 points against Vandy. Ole Miss put up 89 in an overtime win. Missouri scored 81.

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