After enjoying their double bye, the Kentucky Wildcats’ first SEC Tournament game comes against the Vanderbilt Commodores, who are coming off an easy 77-68 win over LSU in Thursday’s action.
This is an interesting matchup given that the season series was split, with Vandy getting the most recent win on Kentucky’s Senior Night last week.
This game will give Kentucky and their seniors the chance to avenge that loss and move into the semifinals, where they could grab another Quad 1 victory. However, Vanderbilt may have more on the line as it serves them a chance to move into the right side of the bubble heading into Selection Sunday weekend.
This is the first SEC Tournament in Nashville — with a good Kentucky team — since 2019. Therefore, there should be a lot of blue in attendance, and if they make it to Saturday or Sunday, expect more fans to buy tickets and make the short trip.
Given that these two teams have matched up twice this season, both teams know the other relatively well. Let’s take a quick look at the game.
Take Advantage In the Paint, Make Free Throws
With Vanderbilt’s Liam Robbins out — he’s the SEC Defensive Player of the Year — the paint should open up for the Wildcats. However, this was something they didn’t take advantage of in their matchup last week.
In their first game of the season series, Kentucky scored 36 points in the paint, more than half of their total points (69). However, in the last week’s game, Kentucky scored just 18 points in the paint.
One reason for that is a lack of aggression. When looking at attempts near the basket, Kentucky showed sixteen dunk/layup attempts in the first matchup, compared to just ten in the latter. However, it does need to be noted that Vanderbilt fouled quite a bit, forcing Kentucky to covert from the free throw line.
The game plan should be simple, get the ball inside and convert, and if they foul, make your free throws (preferably above a 71% clip).
Ball Movement and Shot Making
During Kentucky’s turnaround, one of the biggest keys for them has been their ball movement. Over their last seven games, the Wildcats had 14 or more assists in five of them, the two outliers being a foul fest against Tennessee and a season-low against Vanderbilt last week.
Of course, one reason for this was Kentucky’s lack of a point guard, as Cason Wallace sustained an ankle injury in that game. However, against Arkansas, the Wildcats showed they can move the ball as a team.
If Kentucky can move the ball as they have done so recently, they will have open looks. With that said, they cannot shoot less than 25% from the field and less than 20% from three, as they did in their loss to Vandy. With Antonio Reeves coming off a 37-point performance, I expect him to contribute heavily to that, especially from the perimeter.
Injuries have been the biggest hindrance to this Kentucky team in their turnaround. CJ Fredrick, Cason Wallace, and Sahvir Wheeler have all missed time since the start of February. With Wallace and Wheeler both out, Kentucky has no point guard.
With that said, CJ Fredrick will continue to play through injury and Cason Wallace is expected to return this weekend. As proof, Cason Wallace was seen in practice gear on Thursday.
Cason Wallace in practice gear today.— Tristan Pharis (@TristanUda) March 9, 2023
Pretty promising sign that he will play this weekend in the SEC Tournament. https://t.co/6iAl8SZcDD pic.twitter.com/IwIyUdxQR9
Yet, there is a more surprising return that could potentially happen. According to Kyle Tucker of The Athletic, there’s “some chance that” Sahvir Wheeler could return. If Wheeler were to come back this season, it would ideally come this weekend, which would help him prepare for the NCAA Tournament next week.
For what it’s worth, Tucker now believes Wallace is a true game-time decision, and it’s not a certainty he suits to Friday.
From what I gather, Wallace *can* play. It's more a question of the wisdom in playing him at something less than 100 percent when the tournament that matters is next week. We shall see. I'd probably roll with the guys who won at Arkansas. https://t.co/Ep2hgZ03Jv— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) March 10, 2023
Kentucky Basketball (21-10) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (19-13)
Time/Date: 9:30 EST (estimated) on Friday, March 10th, 2023
Location: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tennessee.
TV Channel: SEC Network
Online Stream: WatchESPN, ESPN+, SEC Network+ or ESPN app
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook currently has Kentucky favored by 8.5 points. KenPom gives the Cats a 68% chance of winning, while Bart Torvik has it at 67%, and ESPN BPI is at 78.2%.
Predictions: KenPom predicts a 77-72 win for the Wildcats, while Bart Torvik is going with a 76-71 decision for Big Blue Nation. TeamRankings (via ESPN) is projecting a 76-67 victory, Kentucky!