There is plenty to feel good about if you are a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats. John Calipari's team is sitting at 15-4, with a 5-1 conference record, ranked in the top 15 in the country, ranked second in the SEC, and with a perfect home record, the Boys in Blue look poised to make some noise in February.
But let's not get too ahead of ourselves. A vital stretch of games as tough as any they have faced thus far is looming. The next four out of five games will be played on the road, with a home stand against Florida lurking afterwards.
The Wildcats are 2-4 away from Rupp Arena this season, 1-2 in true road games. As we have seen in the past, even the best John Calipari teams have struggled through the slog that is playing on the road in the SEC. The John Wall team suffered their only two losses of the regular season in SEC road games; one was at South Carolina, when Devan Downey memorably went berserk; the other was against a top 20 Volunteer team. The following year, Brandon Knight's Wildcats couldn't buy a victory on the road in the SEC. That team ended up with six losses on the road, and left fans wondering if the ‘Cats were going to be an early out in March. Even the national title team in 2012 had a couple of road struggles. Yes, they remained undefeated during regular season conference play, but they had to claw back from being down double-digits at Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt gave them all they could handle in Nashville. It wasn't like Anthony Davis and Company steamrolled everybody; we just remember it that way.
And we all remember what happened last season as the ‘Cats couldn't get it together at home, let alone on the road. But they actually lost less conference road games than the team did in 2011, but they dropped some head scratchers at home, which ended up paving the way towards the NIT.
While this season's incarnation of ‘Cats have taken care of business in the friendly confines, their resume needs some beefing up in the away department. Now, they will have the chance to do so in some unforgiving environments.
The narrative is always the same; SEC fans rarely turn out for basketball games as they hunker down during the winter months and break down next season's football schedule. But when they do turn out, it's when the Super Bowl comes to town in the form of the hated Coach Cal and the equally despised Wildcats. A win against Kentucky usually makes up for an otherwise boring, lackluster round ball season that may or may not end in an NIT berth.
Not every gym will be on the level of Bud Walton Arena, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the decibel level won't be louder against any other team during the course of the season. Even the hoops version of the Iron Bowl fails to drum up the excitement of the ‘Bamanites like a visit from Kentucky does.
Here is a quick look at what the ‘Cats will be facing in the next five games:
January 29th, at LSU (12-6, 3-3) 5th in the SEC
Home Record- 8-2
Best Home Wins- vs. Missouri, 77-71; vs. Vanderbilt, 81-58
Home Losses- vs. Road Island, 74-70; vs. Tennessee, 68-50
The Tigers are a big, bruising team, like they almost always seem to be. Games at Baton Rouge usually end up being an all-out brawl at some point. Johnny O'Bryant III is in what seems like his seventh year at LSU. He is leading the team in points per game (14.6) and rebounds per game (7.3). Kentucky native Anthony Hickey is the Tigers point guard and is averaging 3.2 assists per game. The Tigers are 11th in the country in offensive rebounding, 35th in defensive rebounding, and will present the Wildcats with a similar match-up that Tennessee provided. They are also averaging 8 blocks per game and 8 steals per game and have one of the stouter defenses in the SEC.
February 1st, at Missouri (15-4, 3-3) 5th in the SEC
Home Record- 10-1
Best Home Wins- vs. West Virginia, 80-71; vs. UCLA, 80-71
Home Losses- vs. Georgia, 70-64 (OT)
Missouri has been a bit of a question mark this season. Frank Haith's team spent a little time in the top 25, only to be quickly ousted. While their home record is very good, they dropped games on the road to Vanderbilt and LSU. Early in the season, a win at Missouri looked to be a quality win, but now a loss there would not look good to the selection committee. The Tigers rebound the ball at a pretty good clip at 39.3 a game on offense and 27.6 per game on defense; but that's really about all they do well. They do have two scoring machines in guard Jordan Clarkson (18.8 per game) and the SEC's leading scorer; guard Jabari Brown (19.5 per game). Kentucky's guards will definitely have their hands full; but they played well against Louisville's Russ Smith and Chris Jones, so they do have experience against top flight ones and twos.
February 4th, vs. Ole Miss (14-5, 5-1) 2nd in the SEC
Road Record- 2-2
Best Road Wins- at South Carolina, 75-74; at Vanderbilt, 63-52
Road Losses- at Kansas State, 61-58; at Mississippi State, 76-72
Rupp Arena may explode with Marshall Henderson in the building. The oft suspended Rebel had a slow start to the season, but is heating up during conference play. Fresh off of being named the SEC player of the week, Henderson is averaging 18.7 points per game. The Rebels don't really have any impressive wins on their schedule, and they have some bad losses at home and on the road. But they have only one loss thus far in SEC play, but so did Georgia before Saturday's clobbering. I am not too worried about this game since it is at Rupp Arena. Check back with me February 18th when the Wildcats visit the Tad.
February 8th, vs. Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3) 5th in the SEC
Home Record- 11-1
Best Home Wins- vs. Ole Miss, 76-72; vs. Texas A&M, 81-72
Home Losses- vs. TCU, 71-61
Rick Ray inherited a mess from Rick Stansbury; but gives the man some credit, Mississippi State should be one of the worst teams in the SEC, but they fifth in the conference at the moment and own a fairly impressive home record. Granted, a lot of those home wins were against patsies, but they didn't drop any terrible losses and, for the most part, they took care of business in their place. The ‘Cats already faced the Bulldogs and prevailed in Rupp Arena by 22 points. I don't expect much of a different outcome when the ‘Cats visit them in a couple of weeks, but away games against MSU prove to be tough no matter what.
February 12th, vs. Auburn (8-9, 0-6) 13th in the SEC
Home Record- 8-3
Best Home Wins- vs. Clemson, 66-64; vs. Boston College, 77-67
Home Losses- vs. Northwestern State, 111-92; vs. Missouri, 70-68; vs. Florida, 68-61
We may be looking at Tony Barbee's swan song at Auburn. The Tigers are flat out terrible, even though they have defeated a couple of BCS opponents at home, and they kept things interesting against Mizzou and Florida. But the numbers don't lie; their conference record is abysmal, their offensive numbers are abysmal, and their defensive numbers are abysmal. K.T. Harrell is one of the best scorers in the SEC, averaging 19.1 points per game, but he cannot do it all alone. If things continue on the present course, the Wildcats should romp their way right to Toomer's Corner with toilet paper in hand.
Two out of the four road games that Kentucky will face during this stretch may prove to be tough; I can see the ‘Cats going 4-1 during this stretch, but any more than two losses would not be ideal heading into a game against the SEC's best team.
Strap on your chinstraps, ladies and gents. The SEC road fights are upon us; and the way the refs are calling the games at this point, expect some bumps and bruises along the way. The most important goals during this portion of the schedule should be to improve with every game and, most importantly, keep everyone healthy.