By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
The road can be a grueling and sometimes costly experience for a college basketball team, especially one as young as UK’s.
Lucky for the Cats, however, it was a rewarding one, as they return home to Rupp Arena Tuesday night to face South Carolina after two straight tough road wins in SEC play.
“We’ve just been staying positive and getting better every day,” sophomore Kyle Wiltjer said. “We’re listening to what Coach Cal has to say and trying to build on it during the games.”
That progression has turned into wins, but UK has not made it easy on itself. Saturday, they blew an eight-point lead with under five minutes left before putting away Texas A&M in overtime.
The lapses in consistency are all part of the process, head coach John Calipari said.
“We’re getting better, but we’ve been in flux the whole season,” he said. “We have not been able to say, okay, here’s who we are now let’s just get better at what we are. It’s put us in positions where we’re not as confident in each other.”
Very little of that, though, can be attributed to freshman center Nerlens Noel, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday for the third consecutive week. Noel’s 10.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and seven blocks per game in the two wins also merited National Player of the Week by Seth Davis in Sports Illustrated.
The Gamecocks (12-9, 2-6 SEC) are tied for last place in the conference standings. They’re coming off two losses last week, including a 39-point defeat to No. 2 Florida.
A key to the game for the Cats will be the return of freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein from a knee procedure. Cauley-Stein played minimal minutes against A&M, but Calipari said that was mostly because he didn’t want to take Noel out in critical moments.
South Carolina has two players standing 6-foot-10 or taller, so UK’s frontcourt depth will help combat the Gamecock’s physicality.
The Cats are winners of three straight conference games, and with a game at Florida looming just a week away, they’re looking to use this week to refine their weaknesses and keep the momentum going.
“It has taken a while to find our identities,” Wiltjer said. “But I think we’re starting to come into our own and hopefully we can just keep building upon it.”
The game Tuesday night is scheduled to tip at 9 p.m. It will be televised nationally on ESPNU.