Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats take on a familiar foe – the Vanderbilt Commodores – in Rupp Arena. This game, like many from here on out, falls under the rubric of a "must win" contest for the Wildcats.
Vanderbilt comes into this game having won only one SEC game on the road, but it has won two of its last three at home. The Commodores are a young, rebuilding squad that normally wouldn’t seem like a major threat in Rupp Arena, but after the unpleasant thumping the Wildcats suffered at the hands of the Tennessee Volunteers, anything is possible with this group. The loss of Nerlens Noel, plus a generally fragile psyche, has made this team vulnerable in many ways.
Here is how the seasons for tonight’s combatants compare, courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||Vandy||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#38||#53|
|RPI Top 50||0-6||1-5|
These two teams are both founding members of the SEC, and have met on the basketball floor 182 times, with Kentucky winning 137 (75.3%) and Vandy winning 45 (24.7%). Consistent with this trend, the Wildcats have won 7 of the last 10 meetings with the ’Dores, their most recent loss being in the SEC Tournament final just last year.
Over the years, Vandy has had several strings of success against the Wildcats, including winning streaks of 3 games or more a total of 3 times in history. The most points ever scored against Kentucky by a Vanderbilt player was 41 points by Clyde Lee in 1965. The most points ever scored against the Commodores by a Wildcats player was 42 points by Louis Dampier in 1966.
TV announcer Barry Booker, a familiar face to those who watch SEC games, made 6 threes against Kentucky in 1987. John Jenkins, who left Vanderbilt as an underclassman for the NBA last year, accomplished the same feat in 2011.
Kedren Johnson is still the big dog for the Commodores this year, averaging 13.7 points/game and 3.9 rebounds. Johnson is not particularly efficient, but he is a good 3-point shooter at 35.8%, and takes the lion’s share of the Commodore 3’s. He also leads the team in assists per game at 3.3.
Rod Odom, Johnson’s front-court mate, is the second-leading scorer at 10.2 pts/gm and second-leading rebounder at 4.2 r/gm. The leading rebounder, odly enough, is 6’5" Kevin Bright from the shooting guard (or wing forward) spot at 5.5 r/gm.
Major reserves include Josh Henderson, Sheldon Jeter and Kyle Fuller. Henderson gives the Commodores excellent size up front, and Vanderbilt can go very big with Odom, Moats, Henderson and Jeter in the game.
The Four Factors favor UK in every statistic, but most of these were accumulated before the loss of Nerlens Noel. I would reckon them much closer in every respect except for free throw rate with Noel down.
This game is important, mostly because it would be a bad loss that the Wildcats can’t really absorb given their current status as a consensus outsider looking in to the NCAA tournament. Fortunately, Vanderbilt is not a strong team despite the narrow escape Kentucky had down in Nashville, and if the Wildcats can recover even a modicum of their former élan tonight, they should be able to win this game.
But Vanderbilt is absolutely not going to give in easily, and Kevin Stallings is an outstanding game coach with a history of making it very hard on Kentucky, no matter who is on the sidelines here. Stallings lives to beat UK, and getting the split with us this year would be a big boost to his team’s morale. They have nothing to lose in this game as they are not an NCAA or even NIT tournament team, but the Commodores always play extremely hard, and you can’t always say that about the Wildcats this year.
Stallings will mix zone, man-to-man, and pressure defense to try to confound Kentucky’s inconsistent guards. That’s what’s going to be scary, and with Kentucky’s sketchy ballhandling of late, it really is a cause for concern.
Offensively, the Commodores will play the way they always have, trying to get the ball into post position, force the defense to collapse, and kick out for open threes. Vandy is not a great 3-point shooting team, but they are as good as Kentucky is, and that makes them dangerous.
One area where UK should have an advantage even in their depleted condition is rebounding the ball. Vandy is a poor offensive rebounding club, and while UK isn’t a behemoth of that stat, they have been much better than the ’Dores. Vanderbilt shoots the ball adequately well from both 2-point and 3-point range, so the Wildcats must be stronger on defense than they were against Tennessee. For the record, the Commodores played much closer against the Volunteers both times than Kentucky did last time.
The game favors Kentucky, especially at home, and the line is UK -11. Kentucky has been a master at failing to cover the spread this year, so if I were a betting man (and I am not, at least on college sports), I’d definitely take Vanderbilt and the points.
UK needs this game badly, and I have no idea what would happen to the team if they somehow lost this. It’s a situation I don’t really care to contemplate. If it happens and you don’t see a postmortem for a while, you’ll know it’s because I simply don’t have the words.