Kentucky Wildcats 71 at Vanderbilt Commodores 62:  Postmortem

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky grinds out a tough, physical victory in Nashville against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Kentucky's trip to play the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville was a rite of passage that every Kentucky Wildcats team must face, and it is always a difficult one. Saturday's was no different as the Wildcats struggled at times to deal with an undermanned, but extremely experienced Commodores squad. In the end, Kentucky prevailed by nine, something I think we can all be proud of.

Vandy deserves a lot of credit, and our compliments, for playing very good basketball. Vandy executed their offense very sharply, and defended Julius Randle very well, holding him to single digits in points. Overall, I thought their effort to defend their home floor was outstanding, and for a while in the second half, I thought they might pull it off. In the end, though, Kentucky prevailed mainly on the strength of their superior size and talent.

I know Kentucky didn't play particularly well, although I thought they played very well on defense, and are finally showing the kind of effort it takes to be an NCAA Championship-caliber squad. Tonight, perhaps for only the second time all season, they looked more like a team than a collection of talented players. We needed contributions from everyone who played, and Calipari played ten players, none of them for fewer than five minutes.

I am proud of this team in general and this victory in particular for many reasons, not the least of which is the esteem in which I hold Vanderbilt's basketball program. Kevin Stallings is a very fine basketball coach, and he is the winningest coach in Vanderbilt history for a reason.

Team observations

  • The defensive intensity in this game was markedly better than any game we have seen so far, even versus Louisville. Kentucky really got after the Commodores, and as is often the case when you play very aggressive defense, wound up getting back-cut a couple of times for layups.

  • Kentucky shared the ball better this game than at any time so far this season.

  • We saw genuine toughness and determination out of Kentucky this game. For once, Dominque Hawkins did not look like the lone guy on the team who understood and embraced his role.

  • I loved the fact that Calipari, perhaps for the first time all season, utilized his bench almost to the maximum level possible. This needs to happen more often, that depth is a weapon.

  • I wish we had pressed full court more. Vandy is not a good ballhandling team, and pressing them on a few more possessions might have forced them to be tentative. They turned the ball over plenty, but more is always better.

  • Kentucky's offensive rebounding was outstanding as a team. The rebounding by Kentucky in general was a wonderful thing to watch.

  • The offense looked really good at times in this game, although there is still a lot of room for improvement. There are still too many possessions where the offense looks like something from the AAU instead of a college basketball offense.

  • Free throws still suck as a team. 3-point shooting still sucks as a team. When will that change? Probably about mid-season in the conference. In the meantime, we are going to fight through a number of ugly games like this.

  • All great teams must win ugly — it is one of the hallmarks of greatness to gut out tough, physical, ugly games like this.

  • Upon review, the officiating was not bad. I was really angry at the technical, but upon further review, it was deserved for delay of game (I thought it was for some other reason). I was also angry at what I thought was a foul called on Randle by Teddy Valentine, but that turned out to be 3 seconds, and Randle could have gotten that call half a dozen times. It's nice to go into Vanderbilt and not play 5 on 8, because UK has done that many times.

  • Kentucky was comparatively inefficient today, although not as inefficient as they were against the Louisville Cardinals.

  • Kentucky took excellent care of the basketball in this game, turning it over on only 15% of possessions.  In general, ballhandling is improving for the Wildcats, and it shows in the games.

Player observations

  • I had a lot of trouble deciding on the game ball recipient. There were three very worthy competitors, but in the end, I went with the player who felt the most indispensable to me, and that was Willie Cauley-Stein. WCS did not have a great game defensively — he let Vandy's talented Damian Jones light him up for 18 points. But WCS had 15 points on an efficient 7-9 shooting, had 6 rebounds (2 offensive and 4 defensive) 1 turnover, one block and 2 steals. Game ball.

  • Andrew Harrison had his best game as a Wildcat, and was a very close second for the game ball. He had 10 points on 3-7 shooting made 2 out of 3 free throw attempts, got 8 rebounds including 4 offensive, 4 assists and zero turnovers. Andrew was very much a point guard today, and that's good to finally see.

  • Aaron Harrison also played well, although he shot it very poorly from outside the arc. Aaron had 14 points on 4-9 shooting, was 5-6 from the line, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 turnover. I like the fact that when he found the 3 wasn't falling, he began to operate closer to the basket and use his size.

  • James Young was just okay today. His offensive rating was very low, but he made some plays when we needed them including a huge three later in the second half. Young had only 6 points on 2-10 shooting, was 1-2 at the line, had 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers. Overall, it was one of his least effective games, although he had to sit out a large part of the first half with foul trouble.

  • Alex Poythress played very well yet again with 9 points on 4-6 shooting, 1-2 at the line, 4 rebounds (2 offensive), 1 turnover and 1 block. He did some very good things defensively and continues to be a spark off the bench in a role reminiscent of Darius Miller.

  • Julius Randle once again had cramping issues. Cramps are one of the big mysteries of medicine, and although lack of hydration can be a cause, it's unlikely that Randle doesn't keep himself hydrated. Nobody really knows what causes cramps, and they may well go away eventually.

    But even with that said, Randle did not have a good offensive game at all. He missed many layups and close-in shots that he normally makes with ease, and never really looked comfortable with the ball in his hands. But he did what great players do when they are having a bad game — he found a way to contribute, and his way was rebounding. Randle had 7 points on 3-10 shooting, 1-2 from the line, a beastly 11 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 turnovers and 2 steals. Randle was a monster on the boards, and played some of the better defense I have seen him play.

  • Jarrod Polson was huge in this game. He had two big first-half 3-pointers that prevented Vanderbilt from taking the lead. He also defended his position well enough. 6 points on 2-4 shooting, 1 rebound 1 assist.

  • Dakari Johnson played well in limited minutes. He had 4 points on 1-2 shooting, 2-2 from the line, 1 rebound and 1 turnover. That's decent production in 9 minutes of play.

  • A special shout out to Derek Willis, who despite missing both his 3 point attempts proved himself extremely adept at the wing post feed. He made 3 or 4 beautiful post feeds from the wing that were enabled by his long arms, and those lead eventually to buckets for Kentucky. I think he had at least 2 "hockey" assists — the pass that led to the assist. I thought he had a really nice game.

  • Dominque Hawkins played only 5 minutes this game and had one glaring defensive breakdown that led to a layup. He was 0-1 shooting and had 1 rebound. Overall, this was not his best effort.

This was a big win, Wildcats fans, and I for one am very happy we got it and very happy with how the team toughed out an ugly game. Matt Jones observed on the few minutes I heard him coming back from errands that this was perhaps the most physical team of the Calipari era, and I agree wholeheartedly with that observation. The back court, in particular, was extremely physical in this game and more than matched Vanderbilt in that area, something that's pretty hard for such a young team to do.

Next up is Arkansas on Tuesday, and if any of you watched Florida play the Hawgs, you know this is going to be one tough basketball game in Fayetteville. Arkansas, after losing in overtime to Florida, is now 0-2 and desperately needs a quality win in conference. It's liable to be a tough one, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation.

So let's enjoy this victory today, because the road swing continues, and we all know how tough the road is in conference.

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