Anyone who has ever left home knows that feeling you get when you come back after being gone for a long stretch, or even just a really long trip. You walk in, set your bags down and just let that feeling just kind of wash over you. Then you do your best Judy Garland, and say to yourself, "There's no place like home" (clicking your heels is optional). I am betting that UK feels exactly like that right now. Matthew Mitchell's charges are 16-0 this season in the historical Memorial Coliseum, a venue that has seen it's share of championships, as well as big time games over the years. None of those are any bigger to A'dia Mathies and Company than tonight's matchup with Vanderbilt. UK is reeling from three straight road losses to LSU, Tennessee, and that heartbreaker against Alabama. And if that wasn't enough to deal with, there's this little thing called the SEC Regular Season Championship on the line too.
Lots more to cover on this game after the break.
UK has officially dropped from first to second place in the SEC after that three game run. Tennessee has usurped that first place standing by righting their ship while UK's continues to list and wobble from spending two weeks in foreign waters. UT is now 11-3, and UK 10-3 with three games remaining for UK and two remaining for Tennessee. UK's formula for winning the SEC which was once fairly simple, has now become more complex than we want to see at this point, and frankly too complex for my small brain to translate. I do know that it follows the same formula for both Men's and Women's, so if you are in the know, there you go.
And just to add insult to injury, Tennessee plays their last two games at home, while UK has one more road trip to Starkville to contend with. Needless to say, the label "must-win" is the understatement of the year. UK has pressured their way through every game of the season, and now it is time to see how the Hoops squad will handle some pressure themselves. Vanderbilt, by the way, just to make it a little more interesting, went into Knoxville and handed the Lady Vols their own version of home cooking by knocking off Tennessee 93-79. UK goes into Tennessee and loses by more than 40 pts. You do the math.
Winning tonight, while not guaranteeing an SEC Championship, would guarantee the Cats a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament. And looking bigger picture, UK could still play their way into an outside chance at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tourney by winning out and then winning the SEC Tournament. That #1 seed in both the SEC and NCAA Tourneys would be a major accomplishment for this program.And Kentucky knows what is at stake here, believe me. Vanderbilt and their next opponent, South Carolina, are both tied for third place in the SEC right now, along with LSU, Arkansas, and Georgia.
In the opening statement of his weekly press conference, Matthew Mitchell made it clear what UK needs tonight.
"We have a huge game coming up Monday night with Vanderbilt. We have obviously been through a tough spot here – a tough patch of basketball. Our team really needs our fans to come out Monday night. I know it’s a late tip, but this team has been terrific at home and we’ve had a great season up to this point at home in Memorial and we need a big crowd for a very, very important game against Vanderbilt. They are a tough opponent, a very good opponent, and we’ll have to prepare very hard over the next couple days to get ready for it. I just want everybody to know what a big game it is and I hope everybody will come out and watch us play and we’ll be working hard to get ready for it."
When he was asked about the three game skid, Mitchell was honest, but optimistic about what UK has gone through and what it will take to get over it.
"It’d be hard to tell you exactly. It’s a combination of the players allowing their confidence to drop as shots have not. It’s been a challenge for us as coaches to get them to continue to weather the storm and play hard and not let offense affect defense, and last night we absolutely let that happen in the first half. If we just could have found a way to hang in there in the first half, you saw what happened in the second half. We played with the kind of defensive effort you would expect our team to play with, but we just failed to do that for about 12 crucial minutes in the first half. We acted as if the game was over. I think as a coach what you have to do is when you’re winning it’s not always as great as it looks, and when you’re losing it’s not as bad as it looks. What I’m excited about is we have a lot of really good players, young players that we’re going to get to practice with over the next couple days and get the ship on the right course. It’s just been three tough road games, we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well and then last night we didn’t play with very good effort in the first half and dug ourselves too big of a hole to get out of. In the second half we really turned it around. We shot 60 percent, made some layups and played with great defensive effort and that’s what you have to build on going into this game with Vanderbilt. You have to, if you can, not put the three games together and think about what we have to do just to win on Monday, and it’s tough. They’re young kids trying to stay competitive in this conference. It’s tough, but I think we’ll get there."
UK has 10 Freshmen/Sophomores playing regular minutes right now, and as the longest seasons they have ever played go on, they will see more and more opportunities to get back into the rhythm they had just a couple of weeks ago. Mitchell doesn't give much credence to the idea of them being tired or run down.
"Not a factor at all from a physical standpoint. If you all can read people’s minds then you’re ahead of me, so I won’t speak for our players, but I just think that right now this is a tough time, we’re going to stick together here and I think our basketball team is going to do some great things down the stretch."
Tonight's game is televised on ESPN2 as a part of their Kay Yow Play4Kay Initiative. Fans are encouraged to wear pink and $1 from every single-game ticket purchased will be donated to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Fans wishing to make a contribution in person can do so at the marketing gazebos located on each concourse prior to the game. The 2012 Play 4Kay initiative, Feb. 10-20, is an opportunity for a nation of coaches to raise breast cancer awareness and funds for research on the court, across campuses, in communities and beyond. The official charity is the Kay Yow Cancer Fund in partnership with The V Foundation and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). Game Time is 9PM. Be there or be square.