I think most of the Big Blue Nation expected some close games during the conference season, but I suspect most of us figured they’d be on the road, not at home. Welcome to the reality of SEC basketball. The game last night against the Vanderbilt Commodores had a little bit of everything, from outstanding defense to good offense to gritty end-of-game play. Unfortunately, not all of those good things belonged to Kentucky.
I want to again congratulate Vanderbilt on a fine effort. Not many pundits thought highly of Vandy prior to the season, but it’s clear that Kevin Stallings really knows how to recruit as well has how to coach, and I think this has to be one of his best coaching jobs ever. Vandy does not have a lot of quality size and the Commodores are really young, but they make up for it with a plethora of perimeter shooters who can keep the Commodores in games they should be losing by a lot. Not only that, Vanderbilt plays scrappy, in-your-face defense, and last night, Stallings went against the conventional wisdom of zoning Kentucky and played a straight-up man-to-man, and played it very well. Well played, Vanderbilt, and good luck going forward.
Courtesy of KenPom.com
Courtesy of KenPom.com
Kentucky played very good, even excellent defense. The Wildcats held the Commodores, one of the better offensive teams in the conference, to only 0.88 points/possession.
Offensive rebounding for Kentucky was well below average, which is a big reason why the score was so close.
Kentucky did a reasonable job guarding the 3-point line, but whey they did break down, Vanderbilt made every single one of their attempts. They also made a couple of challenged shots.
11 blocks is outstanding. Good thing UK got that many, too.
Free throw shooting was very poor in the first half, but pretty good in the second half. 65% is just good enough, but this team should be doing better at the line. Devin Booker missing 2 in a row? When has that ever happened?
20% turnovers is unacceptable, and the worst thing is, about 6 of them were completely unforced.
Defensive rebounding was okay, not great. Anything over 70% is acceptable, but UK should be getting closer to 80% against teams like Vanderbilt.
Offensive efficiency was… not. 1 point/possession is barely winning basketball. Barely. The biggest problems were not shot selection, but missed layups and a lack of finishing through contact.
We have to get up more than six 3-pointers in a game. No, we shouldn’t be getting up 20, but 13-17 is a good number depending on the number of possessions in the game. UK needs 28-32% 3-point shots, and last night they got up 13%. Kentucky did shoot a very high percentage of .667, but that’s not hard to do on so few attempts.
Don’t let Vandy’s 3-point percentage of 39% fool you, they shot way better than that. Three of the misses came late in the game from desperation, low-percentage heaves. Their effective percentage for the game was more like 47%.
Aaron Harrison and Marcus Lee share the game ball. Aaron’s stats are much gaudier, and he made a cold-blooded "A2" three down the stretch that put the game into a very good place. But Marcus Lee was extremely efficient, shooting 3-4 from the field, 1-2 from the line, gathering 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal with only 1 turnover. Not only that, his contribution was magnified by some of his own late-game heroics.
Karl-Anthony Towns really struggled offensively. He had a lot of trouble finishing at the rim, but defensively, he was a beast with 7 (!) blocks. He also had a steal and spent much of the second half playing with 4 fouls.
Willie Cauley-Stein was his typical amazing self and gets an honorable mention for the game ball. He had an awesome line and nailed a pretty face-up jumper late in the game on a crucial possession, to go with 10 rebounds.
Andrew Harrison had a very good game overall, but he struggled a bit from the line, making only 3 of 5, which is not a good percentage for him. He had 4 assists, but 3 turnovers.
Dominique Hawkins had a very good game overall, making his first shot, a three, from the corner. He only played 7 minutes, though.
Devin Booker did not have a good offensive game at all. His shot was off all night and he only made 2-4 from the line. He took a sharp blow to the face from a Riley LaChance elbow, but he was just out of sorts. Defensively, though, he was fine, and had 4 assists and no turnovers.
Tyler ulis was solid. He made a nice 3, and had an assist and a turnover. But he was a defensive pest the whole game and Vanderbilt was unable to take advantage of his size.
Trey Lyles reverted a bit to freshman mistakes. He didn’t play horribly, but he took a couple of bad shots and missed all but one of his free throws.
Dakari Johnson was awful in the first half, missing layups and free throws. In the second half, he shot a little better from the field and a lot better from the line. Overall, he was just okay, but his play down the stretch was excellent.
Tying it all up
I have been amazed and impressed how this Kentucky team continues to play well enough to win in close games. This would’ve almost certainly been a loss last season, as would the Ole Miss and Texas A&M games. It’s remarkable to me just how far these young men have come in such a short time.
Once again, I am forced to lament the loss of Alex Poythress. His physicality in this game would’ve made a big difference in a very positive way, and I think we can say that about every game that Kentucky has been forced to play close. Most of those games have been physical scrums where a guy like Poythress really makes a difference with his size, strength and freakish athleticism.
Overall, this was just a bad offensive game for Kentucky, and after having two games in a row at over 1.3 points per possession, they were due for an off night. But it wasn’t just them — Vanderbilt played very good, almost inspired defense against the Wildcats greater size and better athleticism, and they deserve for that to be noticed and remarked upon. For a good part of this game, it looked like two of the better defensive teams in the NCAA battling it out, even though Vandy’s performance to date belies this effort.
In the end, Kentucky played well enough to win despite a strong challenge, and that’s the minimum they need to bring to every game. I expect a better performance at South Carolina on Saturday, even though I know the Gamecocks are a very good team. This is the sort of thing that motivates Kentucky to give more effort, and I have no doubt every shortcoming they displayed last night will be reiterated to them in the film room.
18-0. That’s a good place to be. Now the Wildcats head down to Columbia, where their last undefeated season ended. Time to avenge that loss.