It wasn’t pretty, but the Kentucky Wildcats ground out a road win over scrappy Vanderbilt on Saturday night. The game was ugly at times and Kentucky allowed a team with just seven scholarship players to hang around far too long. But a win is a win, especially on the road in the SEC and I am never one to begrudge a win. It is still obvious that this team has a lot to work on and we may have a few more games like Vanderbilt to work before this team clicks on all cylinders. Even with the quality win over Louisville though, UK can not let up and this week is going to test the true mettle of this Kentucky Wildcats Basketball team.
First on Tuesday, Kentucky travel to Arkansas to face the Razorbacks. John Calipari has not won on the road at Arkansas during his stay at Kentucky. UK lost 73-60 last season and 77-76 on overtime in 2011. As always, Arkansas is a very good team at home and just gave Florida all they wanted, falling 84-82 in overtime. For the season, they are 10-1 at home and walking in to face the Razorbacks is like walking into a nest of hornets.
Arkansas is 0-2 in the SEC and desperate for the win and this could be the most hostile road environment Kentucky has faced this year. This Arkansas team, is definitely not the same team that embarrassed Kentucky last year. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell, among others, are gone and Mike Anderson is having to rely on freshmen Bobby Portis to help implement his ” forty minutes of hell” defense. Arkansas is forcing 18 turnovers a game and have 12 players that average at least ten minutes a game. This is the type of team that always gives a Calipari team a fit on the road or in the tournament.
Then on Saturday, Kentucky welcomes their nemesis Tennessee into Rupp Arena. Calipari is 7-2 versus the Volunteers but the last matchup against Tennessee was probably the worst game of the Calipari era. Tennessee pounded and embarrassed Kentucky 88-58 but that game was on the road. This game is at Rupp where Cal is 7-0 versus the Vols nut once again, Kentucky will face a desperate team. Tennessee was thought to compete for the league title but lost this weekend to Texas A&M at home and that pretty much wiped away any good feelings after the Vols won at LSU 68-50. Adding to the desperation is the fact that the Vols get just one shot at Kentucky this year. There is no Knoxville game.
The Vols are currently at #52 on some RPI rankings and Jerry Palm has them as an #11 seed. The desperation will be real for the Vols and Martin will be in a well coached team. Unlike Arkansas, Tennessee is not nearly as deep and you have the feeling that if you can limit Jordan McRae or Jarnell Stokes, you can beat the Vols.
Face it. The SEC is going to struggle to get more than four teams into the NCAA, so Kentucky has to make the most of every opportunity. Even though the Vols and Razorbacks are not ranked, they do represent a couple of Kentucky’s most demoralizing losses last year. If Kentucky can get the big win on the road and then knock off a big rival at home, you have to feel the Wildcats are close to being where they need to be.
And in the eyes of the fans, this week will go a long way in helping this team define itself and the Big Blue Nation will decide whether this Kentucky Wildcats basketball team is more like the 2012 team or last years ill fated squad.