By Dr. John Huang
The Long and Winding Road
SEC schedule littered with dangerous road games
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – A successful Kentucky season rests not in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena, but rather in the minefield of road games that make up their conference schedule. Screaming fans, white outs, promotional giveaways, and fatheads galore are the obstacles John Calipari and his team will have to endure on the way to grabbing the SEC prize. After all, when the Cats come to town, it’s everybody’s Super Bowl!
Athens, Columbia, Fayetteville, Auburn, Knoxville, Nashville, Baton Rouge, College Station, and Gainesville—those are the sites that’ll ultimately determine success or failure for this team.
Win more than half, and the conference championship becomes a reality. Lose more than half and you’ll kiss a high tournament seed goodbye. No one said it would be easy, but so far, the Wildcats are off to a promising start.
Kentucky survived the hornet’s nest—aka Stegeman Coliseum— with a 78-69 victory over Georgia last Tuesday night in Athens. Wednesday night’s contest at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia promises to be just as taxing. A much sought-after victory over Frank Martin’s club would put the Cats at 4-0 and in the early catbird seat of the SEC race.
At the beginning of the conference slate, stats guru Ken Pomeroy calculated the probabilities of Kentucky winning their “true” conference road games. Looking at the percentages, you might as well flip a coin.
At Georgia (59 percent), at South Carolina (73 percent), at Arkansas (46 percent), at Auburn (35 percent), at Tennessee (54 percent), at Vanderbilt (79 percent), at LSU (44 percent), at Texas A&M (81 percent), at Florida (44 percent).
That makes five wins and four losses by my count. Win all your home games, and that might just be enough to win the conference title.
The opposing fan factor
Why is it so difficult to win on the road? The obvious answer points toward the heightened energy produced by jazzed-up opposing fans. The home team runs faster, jumps higher, and plays harder when the adrenaline of the crowd kicks in. Throw in some shady officiating, and in reality, you’re playing five on eight. Sprinkle in some beer sales, and it’s like a powder keg ready to blow.
“Every game’s tough,” acknowledged sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley. “Most teams’ student sections are right on the floor, so they’re screaming and yelling and saying stuff. Just gotta try to be composed, and for a freshman that can be tough. But I’ve seen it before so probably won’t be too rattled, too nervous, or anything like that. Just gotta try to stay composed and try to help the young guys.”
The rhythm and routine factor
But it’s more than just the satanic energy levels within the opposing venues. There are practical reasons for why teams simply don’t fare as well on the road. Things are just different when one travels. Routines vary, schedules change, and food tastes different. You miss your usual and customary creature comforts habitually found at home.
“For me, the challenge was just going on the road and trying to find that rhythm,” explained junior center Nick Richards. “When you’re home, you always know what’s going to happen. You can get your pregame routine on the court. Just finding that rhythm and routine before the game. That’s the most difficult part.”
The mindset factor
Ultimately, however, it comes down to a mindset. There are road warriors and then there are road worriers. Will Kentucky be strong and resilient enough to overcome the challenges and obstacles that lie ahead? Or will they wilt like a wallflower when adversity first hits.
“The environment is crazy on any road game, especially in the SEC,” admitted sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans. “You don’t want to lose any SEC games on the road ‘cause they talking crazy. That environment is reckless…I’m just trying to go out there and keep this thing going.”
If Kentucky wants to keep winning on the road, they’ll need upperclassmen like Hagans, Richards, and Quickley to keep the rest of the team steadily focused. These guys have been through the SEC gauntlet once before. They know how difficult it is and the mindset that’s required for success—the exact mindset needed to win on the long and winding road.
Portions of this post appeared in the January 15th print editions of Nolan Group Media Publications.