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'Memorial Magic' could magnify road woes

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Playing in Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium always brings about the same old quirky setup, baseline-on-the bench story.

But this isn't the same old story because this isn't the same old men's basketball team.
This isn't the team last year that lived to play on the road and silence the crowd. This isn't the team as the ones that won eight straight games in Nashville, Tenn., from 1994-2001.

Instead, this is a Kentucky team that has struggled mightily on the road, losing five of eight road games this year, including four of five in conference. Those problems will only be magnified Saturday in the unusual setup at Memorial Gymnasium, a place UK lost four straight times until last season's two-point win. 

"It's going to be crazy," junior guard DeAndre Liggins said. "We've got to stay on course and try to come out with a win."

Memorial Gymnasium, where the Commodores own a 72-10 record since the 2006-07 season, offers the most unique setup in all of college basketball. An opera-like setting, the court sits above a few rows of seating as if it were a stage. The stands on the baseline also stand considerably far back, creating an island-like atmosphere for the players. The view can create depth-perception problems for shooters.

But the most idiosyncratic feature of the arena and the one factor that gives Vanderbilt such a decisive home-court advantage - Nashville natives call it "Memorial Magic" - is the placement of the team benches on the baseline behind the basket.

For a half, when the Cats are going the opposite way of their coach, they'll be on an island of their own. With the players' backs to Coach Cal and the deafening noise level at Memorial Gymnasium, communication on offense will basically be non-existent for a half.

As talented and as mature as last year's freshmen were, even they struggled mightily to close out the Commodores in the hallowed gym.

"We played awful up there," Calipari said. "I watched the game (tape) - oh, my gosh."

That could spell trouble for a Kentucky team that requires much more instruction than Calipari's teams of years past. Calipari has said he's had to call more timeouts and designed plays for this team than any of his recent teams.

"I don't like (the setup)," freshman forward Terrence Jones said. "I like hearing (Coach Cal) because he tells us what to do and sometimes we need that. He helps us call the plays. We're going to have to talk out there on the court as a team and be more focused on what Brandon (Knight)'s saying and have everybody repeating it and just getting all the calls right."

Said Calipari: "He'll hear (my voice) underneath the basket when they go (to the other end). What's he think, this is women's (basketball of the past where they played half court) and he stays on the other end?"

Jokes aside, trust will be a big factor Saturday. It will be up to the players to communicate with one another and execute the play without Calipari's help.

"I don't think they listen to me much on the road (anyway), so I don't think it really matters," Calipari said. "I do know they will have to listen to each other. Maybe that will help them."

Calipari is hoping trust was built off the commitment each player made to Calipari and the team before the Tennessee game.

After losing back-to-back games to Ole Miss and Florida, Calipari had each player commit to something and it had to be an area each could come through with. Josh Harrellson's was to take charges. Doron Lamb said he would sprint the floor. Brandon Knight vowed to run the team. DeAndre Liggins' pledged to rebound. Jon Hood's was to talk more trash.

But the player Calipari may have been impressed with more than any other guy was Jones. On a night when UK's leading scorer was clearly struggling on the offensive end, Jones did other things.

Instead of letting a 2-for-9-shooting, eight-turnover performance affect the rest of his game, Jones played through his offensive woes and grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots. The 11 rebounds were only his third double-digit rebounding performance in the last 15 games; his first eight games he had five of those.

"He's capable of that, but guys get into their mind that I've got to play a certain way," Calipari said. "It's not winning basketball and it's not for your team. That's all stuff we're got to learn."

Jones' commitment in the Tennessee game, of course, was to rebound.

After attempting to rebound only 31 percent of the time on defense against Florida, according to Calipari, he was at 81 percent against Tennessee. On the offensive side of the ball, he went after 86 percent of the balls against the Volunteers after a 24-percent performance at Florida.

The commitments worked for a game, but will they carry over to Kentucky's nemesis, the road?

"The biggest thing is you've got to do this together," Calipari said.

They'll need each other more than ever to counter the quirky confines of "Memorial Magic."

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