Cats open SEC play Thursday night at Vanderbilt

The three-a-days are finished. The all-basketball all-the-time approach is tabled for this season.
Spring semester classes started Wednesday at the University of Kentucky, meaning that for the Wildcats basketball team, the grueling days of John Calipari's "Camp Cal" are done.
"I don't call it torture," guard [db]Julius Mays[/db] said. "I think it's only for our benefit. But it is exciting that we get to play other teams and not have to beat up on each other as much."
The first of those other teams is Vanderbilt (6-6), which hosts the Cats (9-4) Thursday night at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville. It's Kentucky's Southeastern Conference opener and another chance for UK to show the strides it made during Calipari's winter-break pacticepalooza.
And though classes were on hold, the Cats learned plenty over the holidays.
"That we've got to work hard," forward [db]Alex Poythress said, recounting the semester break's lessons. "Stuff's not going to be given to us. That you've got to show up and play hard. You've got to come together as a team. You need your teammates more than you need anybody else, really."
The break started with Calipari lamenting his team's lack of conditioning. It ends with the Wildcats having won five of six games and having fought hard in the lone loss, an 80-77 setback at Louisville.
Calipari has tweaked his lineup - he's now starting four freshmen and two towers in 6-foot-10 Nerlens Noel and 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein - and his team has made significant strides.
Point guard Ryan Harrow has emerged as a scorer and reliable leader. Cauley-Stein is coming on strong. Kentucky isn't where Calipari wants it to be, but it has hit a second gear entering SEC play.
So Calipari said he got what he wanted out of Camp Cal, while admitting that the key is carrying that over the court.
"Their confidence is going to come from demonstrated performance, going on the basketball court and doing it," Calipari said. "The first game we have is a road game in a tough environment where you're coaching from the end zones and a team that's going to, you know, play pretty controlled basketball."
The challenge for Vanderbilt has been playing good controlled basketball. The Commodores rank last in the 14-team SEC in scoring (59.7 points per game) and 11th in field-goal percentage (42 percent).
The Commodores do have the homecourt advantage of playing at Memorial Gym, where the infamous benches - positioned under the baskets rather than on the sideline - can cause havoc for young teams.
But Vanderbilt is 4-2 at home this season, with losses to Villanova and Butler by an average of 14.5 points per game. And UK, trounced 64-50 in its first road game at Notre Dame, showed dramatic improvement in its second.
"We were a lot more competitive (on the road) against Louisville than we were against Notre Dame," guard Archie Goodwin said. "That came from us doing this Coach Cal staff, so hopefully we can just continue to do what we've been doing."
That's what Calipari wants, too. He's hoping the lessons learned while school wasn't in session will carry into conference play.
"I told them after last night's dinner, I just said, 'We just went through a great month of training," Calipari said. "Now you go on the court and show what you worked on.' And there's going to be bumps in the road. There's going to be ups and downs. It's not going to be like you're just going to beat everybody by 30.
"You're going to be down at the half at times. But the whole point is you've got a great foundation now to fight, to battle, to know that you can play with anybody if you choose to."
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Memorial Gymnasium (14,316), Nashvhille, Tenn.
TV: ESPN (Rece Davis play-by play, Bob Knight analyst).
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 128/XM 199).
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: TBA
Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 136-45
At Nasvhille: Kentucky leads 53-27
Coaches' records: Calipari 6-2 vs. Vanderbilt; Stallings 10-18 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Vanderbilt 71, Kentucky 64, March 11, 2012 (New Orleans Arena, New Orleans; SEC Tournament championship)
In the third of a trio of hard-fought matchups in 2011-12, the Commodores beat the Wildcats, claiming Vandy's first SEC Tournament title in more than 60 years and snapping UK's 24-game winning streak. Kentucky missed 14 straight shots down the stretch as Vanderbilt closed with a flourish. Jeffery Taylor scored 18 points to lead the Commodores. John Jenkins and Festus Ezili added 17 each. Darius Miller scored 16 points to pace UK. Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis had 12 each.
Keys to the Game
1. He's Back: Kedren Johnson leads Vanderbilt in scoring at 16.6 points per game, and he's the closest thing the Commodores have to a key veteran. Johnson averaged 3.1 points per game last season, but he was Vandy's leading returning scorer entering this season. The Commodores had to replace 88 percent of their offense from last season, having lost their top six scorers. Though technically he's the Vanderbilt point guard, Johnson has scored 20 or more points three times this season, including a career-high 28 points against Davidson.
2. Youth is Served: Thursday's game will match two of the least-experienced teams in Division I college basketball. According to Ken Pomeroy's experience rankings, Vanderbilt ranks 320th of 347 Division I teams in terms of experience on the roster. Kentucky is even less seasoned, ranking 339th. Even with its relative youth, Vanderbilt starts only one freshman. If UK keeps the starting lineup it used against Eastern Michigan, it will start four.
3. Threes are Key: Though Vanderbilt lost three-point specialist John Jenkins to the NBA, the Commodores once again are dangerous from the three-point line - and even more dependent on it than in recent years. More than 40 percent of the Commodores' field-goal attempts come from beyond the three-point line - 41.4 percent, to be precise. Only 27 teams in Division I shoot a higher percentage of their total attempts from three-point range. Vandy shoots 35.5 percent from three-point range and 42 percent overall. The Commodores are 5-0 this season when their total field-goal percentage is higher than their opponent's.