LEXINGTON (AP) — Though home has been perfect for Kentucky, the Wildcats insist they can be just as successful elsewhere.
Now, they’ll get the chance to prove it.
The 11th-ranked Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) have suffered all of their losses this season away from Rupp Arena. It’s been two weeks since the overtime loss at Arkansas that Kentucky blames on mental breakdowns, including failing to cover a player who slammed home a last-second dunk.
Still, a 3-0 homestand has Kentucky confident of carrying its momentum into hostile environments such as LSU’s Maravich Center for Tuesday night’s game against the Tigers (12-6, 3-3).
Kentucky will play four of its next five games on the road and aims to show its poise against an LSU squad that’s 8-2 at home including back-to-back SEC wins.
Coach John Calipari said Monday that his young team’s chances of winning in unfamiliar territory depends on executing better mentally than they did at Arkansas.
“We have to have that on offense and defense because you’re on the road now,” said the coach, whose squad travels to Missouri on Saturday. “You’re not getting calls, you don’t have the fans behind you and you can’t make seven critical breakdowns” as they had at Arkansas.
“We’re zoning in on that a little bit, it may take us time,” Calipari added. “The good news for these two games coming up is that we’ll know where we are.”
In terms of communications and chemistry, the Wildcats believe they’re in good shape after Saturday’s 79-54 rout of Georgia improved them to 13-0 at Rupp.
The Wildcats’ improved court awareness and trust in one another contributed to one of its most balanced offensive performances with 11 of 12 players scoring. The Wildcats also shot 50 percent from the field and had 16 assists on 29 attempts.
Freshman forward Julius Randle was particularly successful, frequently passing out of triple-teams yet managing to finish with 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists. He was named SEC freshman of the week on Monday after averaging 13.5 points and 10 rebounds last week.
Asked how tough Kentucky is to defend now, Randle said, “I’m pretty sure it’s a difficult thing because we have so many weapons. So many people can do different things on the court.”
Kentucky now strives to take its new-found cohesion on the road against an LSU squad hungry to rebound from Saturday’s 82-80 loss at Alabama.
The Tigers also feature several threats with the main one being 6-foot-9 junior Johnny O’Bryant (14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds per game). He’s averaging 18.7 points in his past three outings but knows the obstacle looming against Randle and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein.
“Last year, they were not as good as they had been,” O’Bryant said of Kentucky. “This year, they are young. But, they are getting better every game. They are loaded with talent.
“For any school, playing Kentucky is a big deal. … I am just trying to stay focused and play hard against them.”
Forecasts of sleet and possibly snow for Louisiana have put the game’s status in question, though Monday afternoon when the Wildcats flew to Baton Rouge the contest remained on schedule.
Weather permitting, Kentucky’s biggest challenge comes after it arrives as the Wildcats aim to stay on the same page at a venue where they are 29-16 all-time and 2-0 under Calipari yet mindful that the Tigers and their fans will be doing their best to throw them off their games.
It’s nothing Cauley-Stein hasn’t seen before, but he’s noticing freshman teammates starting to embrace those emotionally charged atmospheres as well.
“It’s different, it’s fun,” he said of playing road games. “The crowd is crazy. It’s live, it’s real hyped, but it’s also hard because the crowd is crazy and the hype is real loud and it’s a fun environment. It’s just difficult to play in.”