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Newness of Vandy test exactly what Calipari wants for his team

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Terrence Jones averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in two games against Vanderbilt as a freshman. (Robert Burge, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in two games against Vanderbilt as a freshman. (Robert Burge, UK Athletics)
It seems a little crazy to say it, but even the life of a Kentucky basketball player can begin to feel repetitive.

Even with all the glamor associated with (and perceived to be associated with) playing for the most tradition-rich program in college basketball, daily routines can become just that: routine.

"We handle every game the same way," head coach John Calipari said. "The format of our practice is exactly the same even though some of the drills are different. We go on the road. We do exactly the same things when we go into town and when we meet and what we do on game day."

Far be it from Calipari and the Wildcats to complain about their situation, because any such complaints would most certainly fall on the deaf, uncomprehending ears of the Big Blue Nation. UK fans would likely jump at the chance to spend one day living that routine, no matter the cost.

Nonetheless, guarding against the complacency that can grow from the tedium of a long season is an important part of Calipari's job.

"Today I just spent the day thinking; I like adding things, tweaking the offense, tweaking the defense, because it makes them think," Calipari said. "I don't want them to walk into practice, because it is monotonous in that we do the same things throughout the year in some cases. I like changing things up to just make them really focus and concentrate."

For the very same reason, Calipari loves the next challenge awaiting top-ranked Kentucky (24-1, 10-0 Southeastern Conference). At 9 p.m. on Saturday, the Wildcats hit the road to face Vanderbilt (17-7, 6-3 SEC).

"Every one of these teams gives us something different," Calipari said. "Now we've never played Vandy with this team, so just like Tennessee, who is totally different than Vandy, who is totally different than Florida, who is totally different than Mississippi State, you've got teams for us that it's just important to see how we respond. Every experience for us is new."

Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb have each faced the Commodores at least twice, but this collective group of Wildcats that includes four freshmen has never done it together. Meanwhile, Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt team is among the most experienced teams in the country, featuring five seniors and a junior among its top six in terms of minutes per game.

"They're a team that has played us three years now," Calipari said. "It's the same guys that have played us for three years minus one or two guys. I imagine they're ready for this, their fans are ready for this, Nashville's ready for this, the administration's ready for this, their parents are ready for this and they've probably been ready for two weeks."

As if the Commodores needed any additional reason to focus, Vanderbilt will play host to ESPN's College GameDay for the first time in school history. Memorial Gymnasium is already among the nation's toughest and most unique venues and the national stage and late tip time should only add an extra edge to the black and gold-clad fans in attendance.

For Marquis Teague, the raucous environment and bizarre bench configuration will be particularly demanding.

"It's the first time I've ever heard of that," Teague said. "I heard about it plenty of times from different people. They said it's a crazy place to play in."

Considering the infrequency with which he'll be able to communicate with his point guard, Calipari will change up the way he calls plays, giving Teague a couple at a time for a handful of possessions and handing the reins over to him. A month ago, that proposition would have been much more worrisome for both, but the strides Teague has made during UK's ongoing five-game stretch of dominance (25 assists, nine turnovers during the run) makes the arrangement much more palatable.

"I'm more comfortable with it," Teague said. "I'm able to read and see what we need to call."

However, unlike some other opponents this season, Vanderbilt has the kind of talent that could allow them to send UK to its first SEC loss even if the Cats play well. The Commodores, in spite of some early losses, were ranked in the top 10 to open the year for a reason. They are experienced, but more importantly, extremely talented.

"They're a great team and a great program," Jones said. "They got a lot of great players but hopefully we can execute like we've been doing on the road and just stay successful."

Junior guard John Jenkins is Vanderbilt's leading scorer and joins Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist among top Player of the Year candidates. UK has faced some exceptional shooters this season, but none quite like Jenkins.

"We're going to have to look to contain him," Miller said of his Team USA teammate from last summer's World University Games. "He's probably the main part of their team. He does a great job of getting looks and getting his shot off and knocking them down. We've got to try to contain him."

Last season, Jenkins poured in 32 points as Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky for the fifth time in the teams' last six Memorial matchups.

"What if Jenkins goes 12 for 12 from the 3?" Calipari said. "It's been a nice start to our season. When's the next game? And you could be all over him and he could still do that."

As good as Jenkins is, he's far from the Commodores' only dynamic threat. Senior center Festus Ezeli had 22 points and 13 rebounds in a loss last season in Rupp Arena, while swingman Jeffery Taylor has evolved from an exceptional athlete and shutdown defender into an offensive stalwart. He's averaging 17.8 points this season, making 44-of-92 3-pointers after converting just 49-of-165 (29.7 percent) his first three seasons.

"He's a tough matchup for anybody," Miller said. "He's big, he's quick, he's strong, he's a very athletic player and he's been shooting the ball pretty well recently so we got to look to contain him. He's another key part of their team and hopefully he doesn't go off on us tomorrow."

If Taylor and his teammates turn in the kind of effort that has carried the Commodores to four straight victories over top-ranked opponents on their home floor dating back to 1987, Calipari isn't going to lose the same perspective he's had all season.

"We could go to Vandy and they play 40 minutes of great basketball and we go back to the hotel and figure out when the next game is and regroup and go," Calipari said. "This is not a football season. For this team it's about getting better and learning our players. And I don't know, because they're so young, how they're going to respond."

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