UK coach John Calipari warned fans of his teams remaining regular season games: four of the last six are on the road and at three of the SEC's toughest venues. The Cats, he said, might stumble along the way.
After trips to Starkville and Nashville in the same week, even the most die-hard UK fan would have to admit that the coach was right, the wins over Mississippi State and Vandy were two of the most grueling in the past several years.
This group's effort is a testimony to UK's moxie and mental toughness. And, as Calipari likes to say, his team's will to win.
Guard John Wall should move back to the top of any conversation about national Player of the Year. His blocked shot against Mississippi State (yes, it could easily have been called goaltending) and his block against Vandy sealed victory for the Cats.
Against the Bulldogs, Wall was two assists shy of recording just the second triple-double in UK history.
Wall provided the day's biggest play on Saturday in Nashville. With the Wildcats nursing a one-point lead, with :03 remaining, Vandy freshman sharpshooter John Jenkins had a chance to give the Commodores their fifth straight win over UK in Memorial Gym. But out of seemingly nowhere, Wall blocked Jenkins' shot, grabbed the loose ball and immediately absorbed a foul.
The freshman from Raleigh hit one of two free throws, and the Cats watched a Christian Laettner-like effort from A.J. Ogilvy go by the wayside, and the Cats notched their 25th win of the season in 26 games.
Remaining games like a meat grinder
Calipari has likened the six game stretch to an NCAA Tournament-type run. He said Saturday's atmosphere in Nashville was tournament-like.
"Hats off to Vandy. That was an Elite Eight environment," Calipari said. "That was two teams slugging it out and doing what they had to do to win the game."
The six-game stretch is a meat grinder. UK gets South Carolina at home on Thursday at 9:00 p.m., then must make a quick turnaround and head to Knoxville on Saturday, for a noon tip. The Cats finish at Georgia on March 3, then host Florida on Senior Day in Rupp on March 7.
It also means the Cats will have to continue to find ways to win in late-game situations.
“You have to be a team that can grind it,” Calipari said. “We want to play fast. Everybody knows how I coach. We want to try and score 100. But if you want us to play in the 50s, we’ll play you in the 50s and we’ll try to beat you. If you want to play a zone, we’ll try to beat you that way."
Patterson Provides Punch
With teams continuing to double, sometimes triple down on big man DeMarcus Cousins, forward Patrick Patterson must continue to find ways to score and rebound.
In wins at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, Patterson has recorded back-to-back double-doubles. Patterson has averaged 10 rebounds over the past three games.
In UK's overtime win at Mississippi State, it was Patterson who knocked in a clutch jumper with :39 to tie the game.
Against Vandy, Patterson's three-pointer, with 3:55 remaining, gave the Cats a 52-49 lead, one they would never surrender.
Foolish fodder for a firestorm
UK's next opponent is South Carolina on Thursday night. This is the same Gamecocks team that knocked the Cats from the ranks of the unbeaten. It also was Carolina's third straight win over the Wildcats.
Following USC's 68-62 win in Columbia, The Student Senate of the University of South Carolina sent the Kentucky Kernel, the school newspaper, a resolution, proclaiming South Carolina's athletic supremacy over UK.
As if the Wildcats needed any additional motivation for next week's matchup.
In the resolution, the Student Senate bangs on the Wildcat football and basketball teams, citing UK's losing streaks to Gamecock teams (11-straight in football).
The resolution also taunts UK's Wildcat mascot and fanbase.
"... even under budget duress, we will provide tissues and bandages for the wounded egos, hearts and minds of Wildcat nation..."
Matthew Mitchell and the UK Hoops team gets first crack at Carolina. The Wildcats face USC on Senior Day, this Sunday, beginning at 3:00 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum.
"I'm fired up right now," Mitchell said during a Friday press conference, after being reminded of the resolution. "We'll show those students at South Carolina."
Mitchell got a laugh out of the deal, before adding," We are just kidding about all this, right? Let's try to keep this in perspective, guys."
To read the Student Senate resolution, click on http://kykernel.com/2010/02/03/south-carolina-students-crow-over-athletic-supremacy/.
Those are the highlights... Stay tuned.