COLUMN: UK needs to become battle tested on the road



Several recognizable college basketball pundits have said this year’s version of the UK men’s basketball team could make a deeper run than last year’s edition of the Cats in the NCAA Tournament.

Even this not-so well-known basketball columnist can tell you that this year’s Cats have to learn how to perform better on the road before thinking about improving on last season’s Elite Eight appearance.

UK put together another uninspired performance in a Southeastern Conference road game on Tuesday night, falling to the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. The game was eerily reminiscent of the Cats’ conference opening loss to the Georgia Bulldogs in Stegeman Coliseum on Jan. 8 when the Cats’ early self-inflicted mistakes (a combination of poor shooting, poor defense and poor rebounding) created a deficit that couldn’t be overcome despite a furious late rally, including a chance to win the game on the final possession.

It’s hard to tell if UK’s comeback effort, one that started after it was staring at a 20-point deficit, was more a result of it playing well or a lack of closing ability on the part of Alabama, which at one point turned the ball over seven straight possessions in the final 10 minutes of the second half.

Whatever the answer to above question, the game was a stark departure from the Cats’ dazzling performances in their first two SEC games, both blowouts, at Rupp Arena, where the Cats are undefeated during UK men’s basketball head coach John Calipari’s tenure. The Cats’ other nonconference losses this season — Connecticut and North Carolina — came on neutral and away courts, respectively.

Granted, Alabama sported a perfect record (9-0) at Coleman Coliseum entering the game and winning on the road isn’t supposed to be easy, but Alabama, which was shooting 3-of-21 from beyond the arc prior to the game, shot a blistering 7-of-14 on its 3-point attempts against UK. Alabama head coach Anthony Grant acknowledged he was worried about his team’s 3-point shooting, so this doesn’t speak volumes of UK’s defense.

The Cats’ postseason games won’t be played in Lexington, so these young Cats have to find a way to translate their home form on the road. And sooner rather than later.

No matter the situation last year, it seemed the Cats could always depend on the heroics of John Wall and the rest of a roster that oozed the swagger one might expect from a team with five future pros on the roster.

However, none of UK’s talented freshmen, or veterans for that matter, took charge of the game in the same way. No one seemed particularly vocal with teammates and Calipari was the one doing the most of the talking. No one put his team on his shoulder and won the game on a final shot.

The Cats began the second half trailing by seven points, which is by no means a staggering mountain to climb. As encouraging as it was that the Cats didn’t fold when they were down by 20 points, the Cats need to show that they are up to the challenge of playing on the road earlier, otherwise it’ll be an uphill climb the rest of the year.

UK Men’s Basketball loses to Alabama – Images by Kentucky Kernel