Finally, it is time for the Kentucky Wildcats to go on a road trip and face a foe that is amongst the top of the SEC pecking order. This, Wildcats fans, is what we have been waiting for.
Nothing proves your mettle like going into one of the toughest arenas in the world and facing a talented basketball team. A lot of the time this season, Kentucky has vastly out-talented their opponents, requiring less than their best performance to secure victory. They haven't all been easy, by any means, but it has been a while since Kentucky was seriously challenged.
Memorial Gymnasium is the graveyard of many hopeful road trips for Kentucky. It was there that Patrick Patterson, Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley & Co. suffered their worst beating in recent memory at the hands of the Shan Foster-led Commodores. That was a defeat I'll never forget, and the memory of it serves as a warning in my heart of what can sometimes happen in Nashville.
Of course, Kentucky has delivered even worse beatings to Vanderbilt, but this doesn't look like a year when either team is likely to get hammered in this game. That likely means a close contest, at least most of the way. Kentucky has performed so well lately that it appears almost inevitable for them to have something of a let-down, but I'm confident John Calipari will have them as ready as they can be for this big game.
|Steve Tchiengang||6th man||Sr.||F||23||18.7||1.2||2.8||43.8||0.2||0.8||22.2||1.1||1.4||78.1||1.2||2.4||3.6||0.6||1.1||0.4||0.4||2.4||3.7|
|Rod Odom||Maj. Res.||So.||F||24||15.0||1.0||2.7||37.5||0.5||1.4||36.4||0.4||0.8||50.0||0.9||1.4||2.3||0.5||0.8||0.3||0.3||2.2||2.9|
|Kedren Johnson||Maj. Res.||Fr.||G||24||13.0||1.0||2.8||33.8||0.4||1.3||29.0||0.5||0.7||76.5||0.0||1.2||1.2||1.7||1.3||0.5||0.2||1.0||2.8|
* Injured -- Doubtful
Vanderbilt -- Josh Henderson, foot, doubtful.
Kentucky -- None
Vanderbilt Strengths vs. UK
- 3-point shooting. The 'Dores are even deadlier from three than the Wildcats, and that's saying something.
- Shooting overall. Vandy has a higher eFG% in conference games than Kentucky, and also on the year. This is primarily, but by no means exclusively, due to their great 3-point shooting. They are tough inside the arc as well.
- Depth. Vandy is nine players deep, and UK is only seven.
- Experience. Vanderbilt is a much more experienced team.
- Hunger. Vanderbilt needs this game much more than Kentucky does.
- Home court advantage, and that is even bigger in Memorial Gym than elsewhere.
Vanderbilt Weaknesses vs. UK
- Turnovers. Vandy turns the ball over 21% of the time in conference play to only 16% for UK.
- Free throw shooting. Surprisingly, Vanderbilt's free throw shooting just isn't what it usually is.
- Offensive and defensive rebounding. Vandy does neither one particularly well.
Kentucky Strengths vs. Vanderbilt
- Shot blocking. No exposition necessary.
- Talent. UK is unquestionably more talented, although not vastly so.
- Offensive and defensive efficiency. UK has significant advantages in both.
- On a roll. The Wildcats are confident and focused.
Kentucky Weaknesses vs. Vanderbilt
- Due for a letdown. Too many good games in a row can lead to complacency, or just good, old-fashioned karma.
- Visitors to Memorial often leave unhappy.
- Desire. There is no doubt Vandy will want this more. It will be actively necessary for Calipari to keep the team focused. In the grand scheme of things, this game is not huge for UK like it is for Vandy, who needs to improve their seed. With that said, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will want it just as badly as an NCAA championship, and hopefully, that will keep the 'Cats focused..
Key Matchups for Kentucky:
- John Jenkins. Obviously, this is an easy one. If UK cannot guard Jenkins on the perimeter, this game will go sideways for Kentucky pretty fast. Vandy has plenty of other guys who can shoot, but Jenkins is good enough to command MKG's attention.
- Festus Ezeli. Ezeli is a very strong inside player, and against most defenses, he is more than good enough to command a double-team, which is certain death against Vandy's shooters. Against Davis or Jones, he can be played straight up.
Key Matchups for Vanderbilt
- Anthony Davis. Who does Vandy put on him? He's too tall for Goulbourne and Taylor and too quick for Ezeli.
- Marquis Teague. I'm not sure how Tinsley guards Teague, but he does have a height advantage. Athletically, though, it's no contest, and I'm factoring in the fact that Tinsley is no slouch athletically. It's just that Teague is far superior. If Teague is making threes, it just makes guarding him a nightmare, as the Florida Gators found out.
First off, Vanderbilt matches up much better against Kentucky than Florida does. They are big and athletic in the front court and big in the back court. Even though they aren't a great rebounding club, the Commodores are big and physical when they want to be, and they have a boatload of experience to go along with a considerable home court advantage.
This is definitely danger time for the Wildcats even though Ken Pomeroy figures they have a 77% chance of winning this game. Statistically, that is undeniable, but we don't play the game with statistics, we play it up close and personal in front of 14,000+ screaming Commodore fans. Vandy will be rocking as much as it can be, and ever has been, and Vandy fans will be anxious to storm the court in the event of an upset. This is every bit as big as the Indiana game was to these Commodore fans, and although they are not likely to match the depths that IU fans sank to, they will not be pulling many punches. This game has become really intense in Nashville.
The big worry will be the atmosphere. Having experienced Assembly Hall, I think the young guys from Kentucky will be somewhat inoculated against the worst of Vandy, although the setup and strange arrangement of the ceiling will undoubtedly make them wonder what mad architect built that place. It will be a distraction at some level.
With all this dire stuff said, I am quite confident in Kentucky's chances in this game. These young guys simply do not rattle, and the steadying influence of sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, as well as senior Darius Miller, will unquestionably help. MKG is completely immune to such factors, and is simply dauntless. Anthony Davis seems very comfortable in big games in front of hostile crowds, but he did get into foul trouble versus the Indiana Hoosiers, so he does have to be careful at Memorial where the viewing lines of the officials are a little different than most places. Kyle Wiltjer is the most vulnerable to the environment.
Vanderbilt is also quite aware of what UK has been doing to teams, and they will be wary of getting into a running game with the Wildcats.That path holds both promise and danger for Vandy, and unlike Florida where the faster game was their only real hope of victory, Vandy is much better in half-court offense due to their better distribution of size and greater depth.
Kentucky, for their part, will not care what Vanderbilt wants to do. They will try to play their game, which is a half-court execution game that has been relentlessly efficient against all comers. Vandy would love to run to get open transition shots and keep from facing Kentucky's ridiculous half-court defense, but at the same time, they will worry about their ability to stop MKG &Co. in the open floor, where even John Wall was no deadlier. It's an interesting conundrum the Commodores face.
In the end, this game is unlikely to be a runaway for either team, and will probably be decided in the final 10 minutes either way. If I'm wrong about that, it will probably be the Wildcats who smite the Commodores with a confidence-crushing blow.