Cats hit the road in SEC opener

UK forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) jumps to dunk the ball during the second half of the UK Men's basketball game vs. University of Louisville at KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday, December 29, 2012. U of L won 80-77. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff

By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel

UK head coach John Calipari has liked the improvement his team has shown over the winter break. That progression will be put to test Thursday night when the Cats travel to Vanderbilt in their Southeastern Conference opener.

The Commodores have struggled early in the year, entering the game with a 6-6 record, including recent losses to Butler and Middle Tennessee State.

However, given the typically ruckus environment of Memorial Gymnasium and the unorthodox court dimensions that place each team’s bench under the baskets, Calipari isn’t taking the trip lightly.

“The first game we have is a road game, in a tough environment, where you’re coaching from the end zones,” Calipari said. “It’s a team that’s going to play pretty controlled basketball. You have to be a disciplined team on both defense and offense because of how they play.”

Vanderbilt’s scoring this season has come in no small amount to the three-pointer. 41 percent of their shots have come from long range, from which they’ve shot 35 percent.

“You’re not going to stop them from shooting threes if that’s what they do,” Calipari said. “They’re going to shoot them. The question is, do you make them hard?”

A key for UK will be the continued good play of sophomore guard Ryan Harrow. With Calipari coaching from the baseline, it will be difficult to communicate with his team. Harrow will have to be “in tune with me” as Calipari put it, to remedy that.

Freshmen centers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein have seen their playing time together go up recently. As the latter freshman has improved, their influence, especially defensively, has begun to take form of late.

“Willie has come a long way,” freshman guard Archie Goodwin said. “He has developed so fast – faster than anybody thought he would. “

As conference play begins, UK will look to improve their No. 32 ranking in the most recent AP poll. While the SEC slate looks manageable on paper, the Cats are making sure they don’t get ahead of themselves.

“We take it a game at a time,” graduate student Julius Mays said. “We don’t want to look past anybody.”

Thursday night’s game will be broadcast on live by ESPN, with the contest getting underway at 9 p.m.

Follow @DSchuhKernel