UK looks to end road woes against Miss. St.

Like a worn-out rock star, life on the road has been anything but easy for the UK basketball team this year.

The team suffered through double-digit defeats in their only two away games at Indiana and Houston in December. But head coach Billy Gillispie said it is not the road itself that wears on the Cats.

“Everyone thinks it’s tough to go on the road,” Gillispie said at yesterday’s news conference. “The thing that is tough is the team that awaits you there.”

Coming off UK’s best win of the year, a double-overtime victory over No. 12 Vanderbilt, Gillispie praised his team for competing the entire game. The Cats (7-7, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hope to duplicate that effort against Mississippi State (11-5, 2-0 SEC) tonight and remain unbeaten in conference play.

“They have good depth and athleticism,” Gillispie said of the Bulldogs. “They are very efficient.”

Ranked seventh in the SEC in points per game, junior Jamont Gordon leads the offense for Mississippi State, which is riding a six-game winning streak. Gordon, a versatile forward that averages 17 points and 6 rebounds a game, jump-starts an offense that Gillispie described simply as “efficient.”

“(Gordon) is a great player,” Gillispie said. “His knowledge of the game and his experience make him an outstanding player.”

The Bulldogs are anchored defensively by sophomore center Jarvis Varnado, who averages five blocks and eight rebounds a game, first and second in the SEC respectively. Through two conference games, Varnado has 17 blocks, including a 10-block performance against Georgia on Saturday.

“They are very tough defensively,” Gillispie said. “You have to score every basket you get.”

Due in part to Varnado’s shot-blocking ability, opponents have had a hard time creating points in the low post against Mississippi State, which has limited its two conference opponents to an average of just 44 points and a .229 field goal percentage.

“They play the post a lot of different ways,” Gillispie said. “But they depend on a lot of one-on-one as well.”

But if UK hopes to improve its SEC record to 2-0, Gillispie said the team would have to cut down on the turnovers that have plagued it all season, especially in the second half of games.

“You can’t execute like we did (Saturday) down the stretch and beat good teams,” Gillispie said.

The Cats continue to be plagued by the injury bug heading into Starkville, Miss. Gillispie said that sophomore guards Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper did not participate in practice in the two days since the Vanderbilt game. Meeks sat out Saturday after aggravating a strained hip flexor earlier. Jasper left the game in the second half with a sprained medial collateral ligament. Gillispie was unsure whether they would be available against Mississippi State.

And though the Cats boast just a meager 7-7 record for the year, they are taking solace in the fact that they are undefeated in conference play.

“Coach was emphasizing that we’re 1-0,” freshman forward Patrick Patterson said. “He’s worried about the SEC right now and putting the losses behind us right now. We’re just going to go out and move forward to Mississippi State.”

The biggest weapon in UK’s arsenal may be its newfound confidence from the team’s performance Saturday, said sophomore forward Ramon Harris.

“Seeing the result of what was going on all week, now you really want to focus more, especially with us going on the road this week,” Harris said after the Vanderbilt win. “Mississippi State is a good team, and with us winning today, it’s really going to help us out.”

But the Vanderbilt win did not affect how UK readied itself for the Bulldogs, Gillispie said.

“I believe we’d be prepared regardless of the result on Saturday,” Gillispie said.

Even if the Cats stumble in Starkville, Gillispie said his team will continue to carryover one characteristic throughout its conference schedule.

“This team is going to be tough throughout the remainder of the season,” he said.