Tomorrow at noon, the Vanderbilt Commodores make the easy drive up I-65 to Louisville, then I-64 over to Lexington to try to get some payback from the Kentucky Wildcats for the tough loss the 'Cats dealt the 'Dores in Music City.
Since the previous game was so recent, there is really no need to revisit most of the stuff we normally hash out in the pregame. To refresh your memory, you can check the earlier version of a couple of weeks ago. Instead, we'll delve into what this game means for the respective teams and what both teams might have learned from the last contest.
What The Game Means to Both Teams
For Kentucky, the stakes are relatively low, with the 50 game home winning streak and #1 ranking the two major casualties of a potential loss to Vanderbilt. It would also represent the first and only loss for John Calipari in Rupp Arena since he took the job back in 2009, but that loss is going to happen eventually. I think we'd all like to see it come later rather than sooner, though.
As far as NCAA implications, Kentucky would still be firmly on the #1 line if they lose to Vandy tomorrow, so it really doesn't do any lasting or significant damage to anything but their pride and the aforementioned "feel good" fan material.
Vandy, on the other hand, has a real shot to make an impression on the NCAA selection committee with this game. Joe Lunardi currently has them slated as a six seed, while SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean has them in the eight spot (which seems too low to me, Dobbertean seems to favor Big East and ACC teams). A victory over Kentucky doubles Vandy's current number of victories over top 20 opponents (using Kenpom's numbers), and that could help their argument with teams like Indiana and Florida St. who have similar records but can claim bigger victories over more talented foes.
A loss here doesn't hurt Vanderbilt a great deal, but it does put them closer to that seven or eight line than they would likely want to be.
Vanderbilt Updated Stats
How Kentucky is Playing
We all know the Wildcats have been playing well in the two games since they last faced the Commodores, but Kentucky fell behind after the middle of the first half in both those games, and in the case of the Mississippi St. Bulldogs game, fell behind significantly and stayed there until late in the contest. Is this indicative of a vulnerability in Kentucky's game? I don't think so, they were just due for a couple of stretches where they didn't play incredible basketball.
Perhaps most significantly, the Wildcats' 3-point shooting has become a major weapon in the last couple of games after a conspicuously poor outing from distance against the Commodores. That's a really bad sign for Vandy, as Kentucky tends to be really dialed in at home, and without a 3-point shooting edge, Vanderbilt really has no chance to win. Overall, I would grade Kentucky's last two games as a B.
How Vanderbilt is Playing
In the three games since the Commodores last saw the Wildcats, Vandy has been playing very well. Their 3-point shooting has been deadly, their defensive efficiency has been excellent, and they've been getting to the line very well, where they are reasonably efficient.
But Vandy's offensive rebounding has been barely adequate, and their turnover % disturbingly high. They must do better against Kentucky in both stats if they want to have any hope at all, because Kentucky turns miscues into points faster than almost any team in America this side of North Carolina. Overall, I would grade Vandy at around a B also, but their B-game loses to UK's every single time, especially in Rupp Arena in front of 25,000+ UK partisans.
As with every team in the SEC, this is a really tough spot for Vanderbilt. They do have that dangerous 3-point shooting on their side, but by now they fully understand that it would take their absolute, unconscious best to beat Kentucky in Nashville. What it will take to win in Rupp Arena is for the Wildcats to beat themselves, and frankly, that just doesn't happen to this Kentucky team.
Ken Pomeroy figures that Vanderbilt has roughly an 11% chance at this game, and I figure that is about right. I am certain that while the Wildcats may be happy about the way they finished the game down in Starkville, the 10+ minutes of futility they suffered has still left an unpleasant aftertaste that a convincing victory over Vandy would help wash away.
Where Kentucky could go wrong in this game is doing what they did too often against MSU -- leave shooters. MSU has very good shooters, but you'd be better off leaving them unguarded than you would to leave John Jenkins anything other than smothered. So I hope Coach Cal has reiterated, particularly to Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague (who were repeat offenders in Starkville) that you cannot give the Vandy shooters any room on the perimeter and you absolutely must make them put it on the floor.
Vanderbilt may also try to zone Kentucky, as it appeared to work for them in the second half in Nashville when they tried it. I don't really think it worked, Kentucky was just cold and took some quick shots in that sequence, but I wouldn't be surprised if they trotted that out again.
In summary, Vanderbilt could win this game if everything goes just right for them, and Kentucky has some major breakdowns. You can never be completely confident, as well as the Commodores shoot the ball, and it isn't as if this is an unskilled team -- they are very good in most parts of the game, and Festus Ezeli is a likely first-round draft pick this year. But Kentucky has been nothing if not impressive, even in games where they didn't play their best, with their refusal to allow opponents to impose their will on the game.
In fact, at MSU, Kentucky came out in the second half down 13, grabbed the Bulldogs by the throat and choked the life right out of them, to the tune of allowing them only 8 made field goals in the entire second half, and outscoring them 45-23 in their own gym.
That isn't just domination, it's murder. It could happen again tomorrow if Vandy doesn't bring their best.