Instead of the usual stat-heavy preview, this will be more of a narrative-style preview looking at the state of the two teams at this point in the season. For statistical information, you can refer to our preview of the most recent game against Vanderbilt here, where Kentucky prevailed in Rupp Arena 74-70 back on February 20th, just over 3 weeks ago.
The trajectory of UK and Vandy since their last meeting
Since Kentucky and Vandy met back in February, Vanderbilt has been on a bit of a roll, winning five of their next six games. Truth to tell, however, all but two of those games were against the dregs of the SEC. The two more or less quality opponents Vandy faced since they last saw the ’Cats were the Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators. They beat the Bulldogs in Nashville by one point, 63-62, and were murdered by the Gators in Gainesville 66-40.
Kentucky has also been playing better, although the Wildcats dropped two of their last six games, both on the road. UK lost to the Arkansas Razorbacks and Georgia Bulldogs, both by double-digits. The Wildcats did upset the Gators in Lexington, however, giving them a chance to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament without winning the automatic bid.
Of the two teams, it’s hard to say who is playing better – it would probably be accurate to say that both teams are performing at or near their season peak as currently constituted.
Off the bench, as normal for UK, will be Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson. Jon Hood may steal a minute or two if there is foul trouble.
Kentucky: Nerlens Noel out for the year
Kentucky and Vanderbilt actually match up pretty well. Both teams have good size and both teams have good speed and quickness. Vanderbilt is deeper, although their players are not quite as athletic as Kentucky’s.
Goodwin Vs. Johnson and Bright: Goodwin has been playing well of late, but Johnson will really test his defense. Johnson and Bright both love to run off screens and shoot threes, and a lot of this game will be decided by how well Goodwin is able to handle whichever of these two guys he winds up guarding. However, neither Johnson or Bright can stop Goodwin off the bounce, depending on which Goodwin shows up tonight. Advantage: Kentucky
Mays Vs. Johnson and Bright: No matter who Mays winds up guarding, he will be hard pressed with either of these guys. Both are bigger, and more athletic. I suspect John Calipari will move Goodwin to the hotter player, but Mays is a crafty defender and finds ways to minimize his lack of size and athleticism as a factor. But this is the weak point of Kentucky’s defense, and Vanderbilt knows it. Advantage: Vanderbilt
Harrow Vs. Parker Harrow has played well against Parker, or Fuller when Parker was coming off the bench, both times that Vanderbilt has met Kentucky. This is a matchup that Kentucky can exploit a little bit on offense, but it’s where Harrow’s head is at defensively that will tell the tale. Advantage: Kentucky
Poythress Vs. Odom Alex Poythress has not played particularly well against Vanderbilt in either game, and Rod Odom has vexed him both times from outside, despite a very poor shooting game by Odom in the first matchup. I don’t like this matchup much, and I think it favors Vanderbilt. Advantage: Vanderbilt
Cauley-Stein Vs. Henderson This matchup definitely favors Kentucky in a big way. WCS dominated Vanderbilt in Rupp Arena, scoring 20 points and blocking 3 shots, including two to preserve the narrow victory. If WCS brings his "A" game tonight, he’ll have a big game. Advantage: Kentucky
Vanderbilt presents a number of unique problems for Kentucky, the biggest one being their reliance on the 3-point shot. Kentucky is the better shooting team on paper, but Vanderbilt’s defense has really picked up in conference play.
Vandy shoots more threes than any team in conference. 45% of their shots are from the arc, and 39.3% of their scoring comes from 3-point range. If they are hot from out there, it will take a really efficient Kentucky effort to overcome them.
Both Vanderbilt and Kentucky turn the ball over too much, and neither team is very good at producing turnovers. Kentucky is a much better offensive rebounding team, but they will really need that edge if they are to defeat the Commodores’ outside shooting.
Everyone on Vanderbilt’s team who sees significant minutes with the exception of Henderson, Moats and Fuller is a good 3-point shooter, 36% or better. Kentucky cannot match that at all, either in volume or in percentage, so they must shoot a very good percentage from the field.
Where Vanderbilt gets into trouble is in two places – sometimes the threes don’t fall, and they usually rebound very poorly, 11th in the conference. Vanderbilt is also a poor 2-point shooting club, so UK must try to force them to put it on the deck and beat them from inside the arc. If they can do that, Vandy’s in a world of hurt.
This game, for Kentucky, starts and ends with perimeter defense. Kentucky has been very much hit or miss in that department, and a miss tonight could certainly be a fatal blow to their NCAA tournament hopes.
John Calipari has said that the Wildcats have had three very good days of practice despite his efforts to be hard on them. I think we should all be encouraged by that, and if Kentucky plays well, they will very likely win this game. With that said, it is very difficult, as we have seen many times, to beat a team three times in a season. From that perspective, drawing Vanderbilt was a bad bit of luck for the Wildcats.