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Friday, January 10, 2014

Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym is always strange, but this UK trip may not impose much fear

Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym is known for its quirks. (Photo used under Creative Commons license)

Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym is known for its quirks. (Photo used under Creative Commons license)

 

When Kentucky takes the court at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym on Saturday—the vaunted Memorial Gym, the same Memorial Gym that’s been responsible for so many college basketball anomalies over the years because of its strange setup not seen anywhere else in the country.

 

If you didn’t know: Each bench is situated under a basket instead of along the same sideline; also, the court is raised so that the stands begin below court level; also, the baskets are strange in that they have double supports coming from either side instead of one support base in the middle, and the shot clock is below the basket (about seven or eight feet off the ground) and off to one side instead of the place it is in every other arena in the country.

 

It’s a strange place to watch a game, so one must further assume it’s a strange place to play a game. John Calipari has coached there four times as the Wildcats’ coach, and UK is 3-1 in those games:

 

2009-10: Kentucky 58, Vanderbilt 56

2010-11: Vanderbilt 81, Kentucky 77

2011-12: Kentucky 69, Vanderbilt 63

2012-13: Kentucky 60, Vanderbilt 58

 

Of Kentucky’s eight main rotation players, only two have played at Memorial Gym. Those are the two sophomores, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.

 

“I just think it’s something you have to experience,” Cauley-Stein said. “Everybody in basketball talks about how weird their court is and stuff. Once you’re playing, it’s not that weird. It’s just, like, at first when you get out there. ‘Why is it like this?’ You’re wondering, ‘Why would they make a gym like this?’ And then once you start shooting on it, it’s not that hard to shoot. It’s just a weird setup, I guess.”

 

Perhaps more curious than the gym, though, is the rapid attrition Vanderbilt’s team has seen this season. Four players left the team during the offseason for various reasons: Sheldon Jeter transferred to Pittsburgh; A.J. Astroth transferred to Towson; Kevin Bright left the team and signed with a professional team in his native Germany, where his mother was experiencing health issues; and 2012-13 leading scorer Kedren Johnson was suspended from the university for the 2013-14 academic year for an academic violation.

 

That left Vanderbilt with nine scholarship players to begin the season.

 

Then on Dec. 5, center Josh Henderson tore the ACL and MCL in his knee. He was averaging 7.6 points and 21.3 minutes per game, another player lost for the season. Down to eight scholarship players, leading scorer Eric McClellan was suspended for the rest of the season Wednesday. Friday, it was announced that McClellan was permanently kicked off the team.

 

Vanderbilt is down to seven scholarship players, only two of which play guard, and nine players total on its active roster.

 

Now, Calipari was eager to remind media during his news conference Thursday not to feel bad for Vanderbilt.

 

“Stop,” Calipari said, laughing. “I had seven last year, don’t want to hear it. Could care less. You know everybody felt sorry for us when we had seven.”

 

Technically, when Nerlens Noel was lost to injury, Kentucky had eight scholarship players. The eighth was Jarrod Polson, who played an increasingly important role as Ryan Harrow continued to unravel. But still, Calipari’s point was made: Things happen, and coaches have to deal with them.

 

Whatever the Commodores’ fate, Kentucky will presumably have its least imposing trip into Memorial Gym since 2003, when Kentucky won 74-52.* Later that same season, the Wildcats beat Vanderbilt 106-44 at Rupp Arena, and then again in the SEC tournament 81-63.

 

*It was not the most one-sided game in Memorial Gym between the two since 2003, just the most one-sided for Kentucky. In 2008, Billy Gillispie’s first year of two at Kentucky, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 93-52 in Vanderbilt.

 

Still, there has to be some news in playing in college basketball’s strangest venue (at least now that Texas Arlington’s Texas Hall is out of the rotation). So here is that news, and here is the subtext: If Kentucky falls ill to Memorial Magic (or Memorial Malice, as it were), that’s a lot more newsworthy considering the plight of Kevin Stallings, coach of a team mediocre to begin that now can’t field a slow-pitch softball team without having to take an automatic out each trip through the batting order.

 

Calipari is still playing it safe.

 

“Crazy scores happen when you start league play,” he said. “You go on the road, stuff happens. It’s hard to win on the road. It’s hard to win in your league. Everybody knows each other. Georgia going to Missouri. How about Arkansas and Texas A&M? Texas A&M’s been struggling, and they come back. Arkansas’s whatever they were, 11-1 or hadn’t lost games? They go there and they get them good. It’s just crazy, and it’s not just our league. It’s every league. You look around and you’re saying, ‘What is going on?’ It’s just what it’s like.”

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