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January 10, 2012
Cats try to correct last season's road errors
Two wins, six losses.
Peruse Kentucky's basketball resume from a season ago - 29 wins, a Southeastern Conference Tournament title, a Final Four - and that 2-6 road record in regular-season SEC play looks oddly out of place.
On Wednesday, John Calipari takes this year's Wildcats on the conference road for the first time this season for a game at Auburn, and No. 2 UK (15-1, 1-0 SEC) will look to make a better early impression away from home.
"Y'all know last year we didn't come out with the road games," backup center Eloy Vargas said. "So I think we need to improve from last year, so we can get on the right track this year."
Calipari wasn't prepared to predict that.
"I don't know. Let's play the games," he said. "I know last year we were 2-6. I also know last year at the end of the year we were the best team in the country. We learned along the way. This tam has a lot of learning to do right now."
And Calipari is convinced that the on-the-job training in the SEC will be brutal.
The Cats get the chance to ease into the conference road schedule with Wednesday's game against Auburn (10-5, 0-1).
The Tigers are undefeated at home this season - the wins have come against - McNeese State, Kennesaw State, Nicholls State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, South Florida, North Florida, Florida A&M, Georgia Southern, and Bethune-Cookman - but are coming off a 65-35 loss at Vanderbilt.
But while Auburn is a home underdog, Calipari isn't expecting his team to roll into town and head home with an easy win. Though his team has faced the most hostile crowd it's likely to see this season at Indiana, Calipari's anticipating raucous atmospheres throughout the SEC.
"It'll get crazy, believe me when we go to Florida, we go to Tennessee, when we do this Auburn game," Calipari said. "We'll walk away saying, 'Oh my gosh.' But that's what it means to play here. This isn't for everybody. If you're hoping to walk into a half empty arena and slide by and go get a meal after the game this is not the place to go play basketball."
Like last season, Calipari has a young team. He'll start three freshmen at Auburn, as he did in a loss at Indiana, UK's only true road game this season. One of them, point guard Marquis Teague is charged with keeping order in a chaotic atmosphere.
"(My job is) just to huddle the team, let them know what's going on, make sure everybody's in the right spot," Teague said. "Mostly, I have to communicate a lot more while we're on the road, because it's so loud and it's hard to hear, (so I have to) make sure everything on the floor's going right."
Kentucky's road struggles last season came in large part because of a failure to execute offensively down the stretch. Some of the responsibility for turning that around this season falls on Teague.
"There's just things you got to understand (about) how you take the crowd out of games," Calipari said. "There are times when you speed up and there are times where you pull back, just based on where the games going, the momentum of the game. There's times when you grind it out and there's times where you keep attacking because you've got them on their heels. That's something that he'll have to learn."
Road experience can be Teague's only teacher. The same is true, Calipari suggested, for his team. Last season's road struggles might better prepare this group for life on the road.
"This year with Darius now, who was a major reason for us to make the run (last season), Terrence (Jones) and Doron (Lamb) along with these young guys, we've got more experience," Calipari said. "We've probably got more talent, so we're farther along than we were a year ago."