Vanderbilt - Western Kentucky Preview

The Commodores remember an ambush they walked into one year ago. In 2010, it's time to get even with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

The thing to remember about revenge games is that you don't get even by getting mad. Especially in basketball, you win by displaying patience and a flinty form of determination on each and every possession. Vanderbilt's admirable blue-collar performance in Puerto Rice showcased a lunch-pail mentality the program hasn't been known for. The Dores will progress as a program – in this or any other season – if they can muscle up on the backboard and outrebound their opponents. The great challenge posed by Western Kentucky, then, is that the Hilltoppers are a formidable rebounding ballclub. Vanderbilt doesn't need to think about "revenge" in order to gain it. The VU crew must think, "box out, box out, box out."


Coach Ken McDonald endured a real rollercoaster ride last season. His team was riding high at 11-5 and 4-1 in the Sun Belt when disaster struck. A five-game losing streak took his team out of the top spot in the league and created a nasty draw in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. In the semifinals, WKU had to take on Troy, the top seed and regular-season champion. Even though the Hilltoppers won eight in a row going into the game, they still had to take on a high seed in an earlier round of the tournament. Playing a top seed in the final is one thing; playing a top seed in the semis can be avoided, and because Troy was fresher, the Trojans edged Western Kentucky, 54-48, to put an end to any hopes of a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance for this highly successful mid-major program.

It's worth noting, then: Western Kentucky underachieved last year – an aberration for the program – but the Hilltoppers still managed to knock off Vanderbilt. Western Kentucky might be only 3-3 through six games, but no one on the Vandy roster should be taking this game lightly… not after what happened 12 months ago in Nashville. It also needs to be said that Western Kentucky is 341st in the nation (out of 348) at the free throw line, making just 70-of-128 shots (54.7 percent). Any team that shoots poorly from the foul line can correct that particular deficiency. If WKU throws down 70 percent of its foul shots, it will instantly become much better than its current record. This is not a layup for the students of Stallings, and no one should have to tell them as much, either.

QUOTABLE: "It is tough coming out with a loss, because that is a game that we are going to be able to watch on tape and see several times how we could have finished it. But that is part of the learning process with this team. We had some real bright spots, but now we have to work on finishing games and sustaining that effort." – WKU coach Ken McDonald, clearly stressing the need for his team to finish games after losing 87-85 to South Carolina on Nov. 27.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Juan Patillo –
Senior, 6'6", 220; 2010-11: 16.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 2.2 steals per game

By a wide margin, Patillo is Western Kentucky's best player. A native of Las Vegas and a transfer from Oklahoma, Patillo sat out last season and therefore has fresh legs that are running over, around and through each and every opponent he encounters. Patillo has attained a points-and-rebounds double-double five times in WKU's first six games. In the Hilltoppers' most recent game against South Carolina, Patillo exploded for 24 points and 18 boards. He's scored at least 15 points and has attained double-figure rebound totals in five of the team's six contests this season. Patillo also leads the Hilltoppers in four different bread-and-butter statistical categories: points per game, rebounds per game, steals per game, and even clocks per game (1.5, not listed above). There's very little this performer can't do, and since the Oklahoma team he used to play for made the 2009 NCAA Tournament and advanced all the way to the regional final round before losing to North Carolina, Patillo brings postseason savvy that his teammates can benefit from.

Forward – Steffphon Pettigrew – Senior, 6'5", 223; 2010-11: 16.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg

A former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, Pettigrew is one of Western Kentucky's two titanic tweeners, alongside the marvelous Mr. Patillo. Pettigrew, a native of Elizabethtown, Ky., continues to deliver the goods for this program. He was an anchor on the WKU teams that crashed the 2008 and 2009 NCAA Tournaments, winning a first-round game on both occasions. This year, in his final collegiate season, Pettigrew is taking no prisoners. He's scored in double figures in all six games, giving him a streak (dating back to last season) of 13 straight games with at least 10 points. He might be only 6-5, but he plays like a 6-8 guy and can disrupt opposing players' shots. Pettigrew more than holds his own on the boards as well. He's going to be a tough man to defend on the first night of December.

Forward – Sergio Kerusch – Senior, 6'5", 225; 2010-11: 13.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg

It's not too different from last year for this vital cog in the Western Kentucky machine: On a roster that owns two very dynamic players – Patillo and Pettigrew – Kerusch isn't expected to do the same kinds of things. Last year, Kerusch teamed with Pettigrew and A.J. Slaughter; this year, Pettigrew is still around, but Patillo is the new scorer who is counted on to fill it up for the WKU crew. Kerusch doesn't have the all-around versatility of his teammates, but the Memphis product is relentlessly and helpfully consistent for his team. Kerusch's averages (listed above) are almost identical to where they were last year when Western Kentucky played Vandy at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena (formerly the Sommet Center). Kerusch is still counted on to free up his teammates for open looks, and to perform the no-glory duty of hitting the backboard with abandon. Kerusch, along with Pettigrew, is the only other primary link to the 2008 NCAA Tournament team that reached the Sweet 16 and made UCLA sweat in the final minutes. His savvy near the rim will give this team a huge lift as it moves through non-conference play and gears up for the start of the Sun Belt season.

QUOTABLE: "We've been working on free throws all week, we just have to learn how to convert it from practice into games and knock them down. We had 21 free throw opportunities and we hit 13 out of that. We are trying to move it up every single day we hit the gym. We just have to learn to make the transition from the gym into the games." – Kerusch, on Western Kentucky's foul-shooting woes.

Guard – Ken Brown – Junior, 5'11", 160; 2010-11: 6.3 ppg, 3.5 assists per game, 2.9 rpg

The guard from St. Louis, Montana (not Missouri) really struggled in his first four games of the season, and in a two-game stretch, Brown received only 21 combined minutes from the WKU coaching staff. However, in the South Carolina loss, Brown appeared to find his sea legs. He played 40 minutes in the double-overtime game and had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. Brown helped out on the defensive glass and is a big part of the reason for WKU's exceptional 3-point shooting defense. The Hilltoppers allow opponents to shoot just 29.7 percent from long distance. That level of three-point-shooting defense is by far the best in the Sun Belt Conference, and it ranks in the top 25 percent of all Division I-A men's basketball teams.

Guard – Brandon Peters – Freshman, 6'1", 180; 2010-11: 5.5 ppg, 2.2 apg, 2.8 rpg

As a freshman who is just six games into his collegiate career, Peters is expectedly having difficulty finding a comfort zone. The Houston native is shooting only 33 percent from the floor, 21 percent from 3-point range, and only 57 percent from the charity stripe. Peters needs to be a more dynamic presence in all aspects of competition; otherwise, he might be moved to the bench in favor of reserve guards who are doing more to facilitate Western Kentucky's halfcourt offense.


By a considerable margin, the best and most impactful reserve for Ken McDonald is Kahlil McDonald (no relation). The Hilltoppers' coach can ask his like-named player, a 6-2, 195-pound junior guard, to provide scoring punch off the bench. Kahlil McDonald averages only 5.5 points per game, but he does so in only 16.8 minutes per game, which gives him a points-per-40-minutes rate of 13.1, fifth-best on the WKU roster. Vandy will have to watch for the Brooklyn product and clamp down on the Hilltoppers' sixth man.

There are other role players with well-defined responsibilities on the Western Kentucky bench. Center Cliff Dixon pulls down 5.7 rebounds per game in just under 16 minutes, making him one of the Hilltoppers' most effective rebounders and by far the most active reserve on the glass. Backup guard Jamal Crook averages only 15 minutes a contest, but he is the team's best ball distributor with 4.2 assists per game and a sparkling 3.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. If thwarting the opposition is most centrally achieved by preventing players from doing the thigns they do best, Vanderbilt knows what to look for when the Hilltoppers go deep into their rotation. Expect Ken McDonald to use at least nine players, and very probably ten, on Wednesday night.

Keys to the Game

1) No rebounds, no revenge.
Let's cast the issue in plain terms: Western Kentucky is 20th in the nation with 39.3 rebounds per game. More instructive is this statistic: The Hilltoppers rebound 37.6 percent (roughly three out of every eight) of their missed shots. Yes, WKU gets an offensive rebound on three of every eight opportunities, an exceptionally good rate. The Dores need to gang-rebound the ball and protect the glass. If they do, they're in very good shape.

2) Force role players to do more than what they're capable of. Western Kentucky is plainly an imbalanced team. So much of the offense runs through Patillo and Pettigrew that the other players on the roster, starters and reserves alike, aren't inclined to step up and answer the bell. If Vandy can contain the Patillo-Pettigrew combo and force the Hilltoppers' role players to shoot and score at prolific rates, the sense here is that the visitors from the Sun Belt Conference won't be able to keep up. That's a proposition the Commodores would welcome in this contest. They can lose if Patillo and Pettigrew go off for big nights. They will have a hard time losing if they lock down the Hilltoppers' two hardwood stars.

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