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From the Pressbox: Title chances and hostile road venues

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While taking a break from the Grammy Awards Sunday night,  I tuned in the "Big Ten Basketball and Beyond" show in time to see Hall of Fame college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy (sportingnews.com) and former Ohio State star Jim Jackson discussing the national title picture.

They were asked to participate in an exercise in which each analyst would draft four teams that they thought could win the championship come April. DeCourcy went first and chose Indiana. Jackson countered with Florida and then Michigan State. Back to DeCourcy for Duke and Arizona, followed by Jackson picking Kansas and Gonzaga.

That left one pick and I was wondering whether DeCourcy would go with Louisville or Michigan. But to my surprise, DeCourcy said "the Kentucky Wildcats," noting that the last 10 NCAA champs ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and that the Cats were an under-the-radar team that could well fit into that category by March.

Kentucky gets a chance to give that opinion a shot of validation tonight when it faces Florida on the Gators' home court. This time two years ago, the Cats were struggling through a series of close losses that would lead to a 2-6 road record in SEC play and yet that team made it to the Final Four. Coach John Calipari's latest team is off to a 4-1 road start as it heads to the O-Dome in Gainesville, Fla.    

In UK's lone SEC road loss, it surrendered a nine-point halftime lead, the only time in the past 57 games in which the Cats have led at halftime and then lost.  My UK radio network partner, Mike Pratt, says the way a team start each half is a big key to success on the road.

"Listen to the scouting report and really get off to a good start, in the first half and the second half. When you're on the road, you don't have the crowd to lift you up. You have to be as focused as you were to start the game. Maybe in high school, you can get away with that. In AAU ball, nobody cares. You gotta bring the same focus and concentration to start the second half as you did the first half," Pratt said on "The Leach Report" radio show.

Before becoming a radio and TV analyst, Pratt was a longtime head coach and assistant at both the college and pro levels and he says the guys at the next level understand how serious a player has to be about the opponent.

"All day long, you gotta be thinking about your opponent, who you're guarding. Know what everybody on the team is doing, so you can help your teammate. In college, you gotta know everything that's going on and that is all learned by focusing. Don't lay around and sleep, play games and watch television but do some thinking about what's going to go that night," Pratt said.

A short walk from where the Cats face the Gators tomorrow is the former Florida basketball venue, affectionately known as "Alligator Alley." Pratt says that was the toughest road environment for the Wildcats when Pratt was a player from 1967-70.

"Gator Alley was a tough place to play. They were good, had Neal Walk and Andy Owens. That was a 5,000-seat place and they had windows on one side where the sun would come in. I think Gator Alley, given the level of talent Florida had at that time, was the most difficult place to play. They were used to it. They practiced in the afternoon (with the sun coming in)," Pratt recalled. "It was a big deal then and the fans were right on top of you--and they were not kind."

Tennessee's Stokely Athletic Center, soon to be demolished, was always a tough arena for the Cats, too. Pratt recalls one game when, as the players were coming from the locker room onto the court, they were pelted with orange slices from the UT fans.

"At Stokely, they always put the football team behind you," Pratt remembered. "That was quite a rivalry, too."

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