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Trip to Bloomington an early-season barometer for Cal's Cats

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Marquis Teague will play in his first collegiate road game on Saturday against Indiana. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Marquis Teague will play in his first collegiate road game on Saturday against Indiana. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
A week ago, the Kentucky Wildcats played in exactly the kind of environment that makes high level college basketball so special. The eighth-largest crowd in Rupp Arena history was on hand for UK's 73-72 win over North Carolina with its emotions plainly visible (and audible) throughout.

The young Kentucky team had experienced Rupp before, but not with the kind of electricity that pulsed throughout the building from the opening tip to the final buzzer as during the victory over UNC. The Cats won't have to wait long to experience another similar atmosphere, but the one they'll enter on Saturday in Assembly Hall won't be nearly so friendly.

With their Indiana team off to an 8-0 start for the first time since 2002-03 and a bitter rival coming to Bloomington, Ind., the Hoosier faithful will assuredly be just as boisterous as the Big Blue fans were last Saturday.

"It will be like the one we played in when we had North Carolina here," head coach John Calipari said. "It will be the same kind of environment. They've got great fans and they're going to be all over it. They've got a team that's doing well, undefeated. It should be a festive crowd I would say."

When No. 1 Kentucky (8-0) and Indiana tip off at 5:15 p.m. Saturday on ESPN, the fans in attendance will be silent or booing when the young Wildcats are used to hearing cheers. When things don't go UK's way, it will be to the pleasure of the 17,000-plus gathered in Assembly Hall.

Calipari's seven- and occasionally eight-man rotation featuring four freshmen and two sophomores has played on big stages already in Rupp and Madison Square Garden, but Saturday's experience is going to be an entirely new one. Consequently, Calipari doesn't see the game as a measuring stick for what his team will be at the end of the season, rather a way for him to find out where the Cats are right now.

"This is a learning opportunity for us," Calipari said. "Last year we were not good on the road. We just weren't. We beat South Carolina on the road but they had struggled. Everybody else on the road, we couldn't beat anybody. This shows us where we are."

UK had a 3-7 record on the road a season ago, including a 2-6 mark in Southeastern Conference away games. Far from a must-win game in his eyes, Calipari sees the Indiana game as a chance to see what he needs to focus on with his team before January.

"We have some time," Calipari said. "We have a month to get it right before we start playing league games on the road."

Since his four freshmen have never been a part of a collegiate road game and have played 50.7 percent of the team's minutes, it's been up to Calipari and his more veteran players to try to impart to the youngsters what they'll be facing. His approach has been a simple one, but there's no knowing whether his team will be able to put it into practice until the game actually starts.

"All we have to do is try to play a good ballgame," Calipari said. "It's going to be hard. We know it's hard. I'm trying to explain to them how you have to play to win on the road, but me saying it and them doing it are two different things."

Senior guard Darius Miller is the only player on the active roster to have taken the floor in Assembly Hall, so he's made sure to communicate to his teammates just what they'll be in for. He played 17 minutes in UK's 90-73 win over an Indiana team that had a 10-21 record that year, but kept the game against the Wildcats much closer than they had any business doing, largely spurred by the home crowd.

"It's tough because a lot of teams feed off their fans," Miller said. "They play out of their minds, especially at Indiana with their fans cheering the way they do. I saw that two years ago when we had a tough game up there."

UK led by just one point in that game at halftime, but this year's IU team bears little resemblance to that one from a couple season ago. The Hoosiers are still unranked, but their perfect start through eight games under Tom Crean has reenergized a fan base desperate to return to the national limelight.

The most important factor in their emergence this season has been the play of freshman forward Cody Zeller, the brother of UNC's Tyler. At 6-foot-11, 230 pounds, the younger Zeller is averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds and he leads the team in both categories. Star UK freshman Anthony Davis is the nation's second-leading shot blocker, but Calipari expects Crean to call Zeller's number early and often to test the UK interior.

"First of all, they'll go with Cody," Calipari said. "They're going to run any kind of power game they can and they're going to see exactly if we can guard them inside."

Against Tyler, UK opted to send double teams whenever he received the ball in the post, but IU has the ability to punish the Cats for that kind of approach. The Hoosiers surround Cody Zeller with capable outside shooters, led by junior Jordan Hulls, who has hit 15-of-28 (53.6 percent) of his attempts from beyond the arc so far this season.

"The good news for them is if we do anything leaving men, all their perimeter men shoot the ball well so it's going to be a tough challenge on what we do," Calipari said.

IU will also do anything it can to disrupt a Kentucky offense that has been shaky in the half-court at times. Calipari mentioned the possibility of the Hoosiers backing off freshman point guard Marquis Teague, daring him to shoot, while also not ruling out any possible looks Crean, Calipari's close friend, could use.

"Anytime I've coached against Tom, you've got to be ready because he'll throw some junk defenses," Calipari said. "You better be ready for a triangle and two, he may throw a box and one, they'll throw some zone. One year we went up there and they hadn't played any zone until we went in town and they played all zone."

However IU attacks him, Teague is going to be facing possibly the most difficult set of challenges of anyone on the floor. He's an Indianapolis native, who disappointed plenty of hometown fans by opting to wear blue and white instead of cream and crimson and many of them figure to let him know about it Saturday. Teague has shown discipline in committing just five turnovers against 22 assists his last five games, but he's going to be called upon to display even more of that in a tough situation.

"It's going to be hard," Calipari said. "It's going to be a tough challenge. You don't want to get in the back and forth: 'You scored on me and now I'm scoring on you.' You can't do that, not in these kinds of games. It's all going to be new to him. It's his first time in that building, it's his first time in a true road game. It's going to be hard."

Teague knows all about how Indiana fans feel about Kentucky from growing up there, so he at least has an inkling of what he's in for. He also attended Hoosier games as a youngster, but this time all the eyes will be on him.

"I've been there my whole life so I know how much they hate us," Teague said. "It's a big rivalry and I know how this game is going to be. It's going to be very intense."

The combination of IU's momentum, the fans' exuberance and the inexperience of Kentucky has led many experts to pick the Hoosiers to pull the upset and end UK's reign atop the polls. Calipari has been sure to point that fact out to his team as motivation but, at the same time, he understands why people are saying it.

"We haven't been on the road yet," Calipari said. "We're a young team with three freshmen and two sophomores. It's an easy pick."

Even so, those prognostications are nothing more than conjecture. Few could have predicted the Cats could take North Carolina's best shot and live to tell about it, committing just nine turnovers along the way. Just like the UNC game, Calipari is sure to learn about his team either way.

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