Scouting Report: Kentucky
Last year, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky at home, but the Wildcats – after the mass exodus of their 2010 starting five to the NBA – were simply not an elite team. Sure, the Cats made the Final Four, but that was thanks to a darkhorse run… and a 2-for-16 shooting performance by Ohio State's William Buford in the East Regional semifinals. The 2011 Kentucky squad experienced a March joyride as a lower seed, not the typical top-seeded primrose path on The Road To The Final Four, the path that Rick Pitino carved out during his stay in Lexington during the 1990s. When Vanderbilt beat Kentucky last year, the moment was satisfying but not transformative for the Dores, and that's the essential difference to keep in mind as Big Blue comes to Memorial Gym for a main-event throwdown.
Two years ago, you remember how Jermaine Beal wasn't able to deliver the goods on Vanderbilt's final possession. When the 2010 Kentucky team slithered out of Nashville with a narrow triumph, the Commodores lost something more than a game with SEC East title implications; they lost to the No. 1 team in major college basketball and thereby failed to gain the realization that they could beat the very, very best.
Shooters need to see the ball go through the hoop. Similarly, teams that struggle with their longstanding reputations and have a hard time overcoming obstacles must be able to experience the reality of a breakthrough. Vanderbilt needed that 2010 win over Kentucky to cross the threshold and change mindsets in the locker room. Coach Kevin Stallings needed to be able to hold up the head of the Wildcats on a bloody spike, like a trophy claimed in savage battle, and shout to his players that they had changed the way Vanderbilt does business in its 94-foot-long office space. As the first 2012 tilt with ‘Tucky arrives, the Commodores simply have to bag a win over Blue. They need to beat the very, very best so that when they make the trip to Bracketville on the third Thursday or Friday of March, they will be infused with the kind of confidence that only victory (not coming close) can bring.
That's why – and how – this game matters so much. If Vanderbilt REALLY wants to turn into a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight program and not get bounced from the Big Dance in the first round again, it needs to be able to take down an elite Kentucky team, not merely a good one (as was the case in 2011).
Here come the big, bad Wildcats. They haven't been resplendent or awe-inspiring on the road this season, but they've almost always come through in the clutch. For all the talk about how this college basketball season was going to be so gloriously transcendent with all the returning NBA-level talent on hand, the very best teams in the sport are not what they were perhaps cracked up to be. One can point to clear flaws in Syracuse, Ohio State and North Carolina; Kentucky is no different. However, when the smoke clears, the Wildcats have as much of a claim to the No. 1 spot in the sport as anyone else. This is a loaded team, and what's more is that – with one conspicuous exception – it is a hungry and focused squad as well. It's not a deep team, but since the NCAA Tournament is – as Roy Williams accurately described it several years ago – "three two-game tournaments" on separate weekends, depth need not be thought of as the kind of problem that's likely to fell coach John Calipari's club. It's going to take a mighty effort to bring this team down in February or March (or April 2 in New Orleans). Vanderbilt knows it is going up against a supremely formidable band of basketball brothers.
Forward – Anthony Davis – Freshman, 6-10, 220 2011-12: 14 ppg, 10 rpg, 4.8 blocks per game
Sometimes, statistics lie. Anthony Davis's numbers don't. When a freshman big man averages a double-double and throws in roughly five blocked shots per contest just for kicks, you know he's made of something special, particularly when he carries just 220 pounds on his frame. Davis is a passionate pogo stick of a presence in the post, one of the two newbies who has made Kentucky so imposing this season. The finer point to emphasize about Davis is that his top-shelf athleticism is accompanied by generally sound instincts. Davis has picked up at least four fouls in a game on only three occasions this season, and all of them came in the first month of Kentucky's season: Nov. 15 against Kansas (four), Nov. 20 against Old Dominion (five), and Dec. 10 against Indiana (four, the one time Kentucky lost this season). A big-leaping freshman should be very vulnerable to pump fakes and ball fakes, but Davis stands his ground as a shot blocker. Festus Ezeli must be at his very best in this game – he has to know that Davis will stay at home, meaning that a power-oriented low-post style (not a finesse approach) will serve him best against this phenomenal first-year player.
Forward – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Freshman, 6-7, 232; 2011-12: 12.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Whereas Anthony Davis's greatness was largely expected from the beginning of his freshman season, the college basketball community wasn't quite as certain when the topic of discussion was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Yet, the powerful forward – while perhaps not the centerpiece of the UK roster (that's Davis's identity) – has become the difference maker or "X factor" for Big Blue. If Davis is impressive because of his instincts, Kidd-Gilchrist – whose instincts are mighty fine, to say the least – has become a breakout performer for Kentucky for a different reason: his motor. It's become fashionable in the world of basketball parlance to use the term "motor" to describe a non-stop energy guy, the player who works harder than anyone else on the court for the longest stretch of time. Kidd-Gilchrist is that man. No one in the entire sport of college basketball – with the possible exception of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger – pursues 50-50 balls with the consistent relentlessness exhibited by Kidd-Gilchrist. His work ethic has infused this Kentucky team with confidence and, more precisely, a winning edge on the floor. His energy is infectious, but that's not the whole story – that energy carries the Wildcats through rough patches.
Pitino, the former Kentucky coach, famously said during his tenure in Lexington that "You can't say there's no pressure. You have it. I have it. But we can make it good pressure, pressure that makes you focus better, play better defense, rebound better, run faster, jump higher. If you can turn it into good pressure, then that's good. If you worry about it and it makes you feel nervous, that's bad pressure." Everything Pitino was trying to convey in that statement about the pressure felt by the top teams in college basketball is embodied in Kidd-Gilchrist. When Kentucky has struggled on the road – especially at Tennessee last month – Kidd-Gilchrist typically runs faster, plays better defense, rebounds better, and jumps higher, thereby lifting his team from the precipice of defeat and safely into the winner's circle. If Vanderbilt wants to beat Kentucky, it must match Kidd-Gilchrist's desire for 40 minutes. That's a tall order.
Forward – Terrence Jones – Sophomore, 6-9, 252; 2011-12: 12.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg
A sophomore averaging "12 and 6" for a top-ranked team? Pretty good, right? Not for Terrence Jones. The man who was supposed to be the No. 1 Cat on this roster has instead slid into relative mediocrity (emphasize the word "relative," of course). Jones disappeared from UK's loss to Indiana, and he has established a worrisome penchant for disappearing from other contentious games the Wildcats have played this season. The reliable players on the Cats' starting five are Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Doron Lamb. If Kentucky wants to win the national title, Jones must elevate his game. He has the body and the skill set, but it's that blood-pumping organ, the heart, which must grow in order for Kentucky to realize its potential in March.
Guard – Doron Lamb – Sophomore, 6-4, 210; 2011-12: 13.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .495 3-PT%
Kentucky butters its bread in the frontcourt, so its backcourt has a simple job description: 1) Make threes when they become available due to defenses collapsing in the paint to deal with the Davis-Kidd-Gilchrist-Jones three-headed monster. 2) Don't turn the ball over. 3) Repeat parts 1 and 2. Point-blank, Lamb is taking care of his end of the bargain. He hits roughly half of his threes and turns the ball over once per game in 30 minutes of action. Lamb needs to be closely checked on the perimeter; Vanderbilt must make Jones hit outside shots in this game if the Dores are forced to choose between him and Lamb.
Guard – Marquis Teague – Freshman, 6-2, 189; 2011-12: 9.7 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.5 rpg
Unlike Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague was not expected to be a runaway star this season. Unlike Jones, Teague did not have a year of college ball under his belt when the 2011-2012 campaign began. Teague is therefore not a player who has failed to deliver the goods this season. This is the one man in UK's starting five who is simply a little bit behind the curve, the player whom the rest of the Wildcats will need to help as this season continues. It's not as though Teague isn't terrifically talented; he scored 12 points and dished out 10 assists this past Tuesday in the demolition of Florida, and all things considered, he has withstood considerable amounts of scrutiny and pressure as the point guard on a young team bearing the burden of the top ranking in the United States. Nevertheless, Teague is an incomplete player because his shot does not inspire fear from opposing defenses. Teague hits just under 33 percent of his threes, and while 4.6 dimes per game is solid, a 2.9 turnovers-per-game average is not. Teague needs to find his jumper, and as long as he doesn't do so against Vanderbilt, the Commodores can play him for the drive while playing Lamb to shoot. If Teague doesn't knock down a few open jumpers beyond 17 feet, VU can maintain the defensive structure it will need against the Cats.
Whereas forward Eloy Vargas is an unquestioned liability for the Wildcats, guard Darius Miller, a 26-minute-per game "sixth starter," offers a considerable amount of value for Calipari when he comes off the pine. The 6-8, 225-pound wing is a long defender whose outside shot – while hardly lethal – is just enough to keep defenses honest and thereby clear the low block for the Cats' array of interior redesigners. Forward Kyle Wiltjer provides spot minutes for Kentucky, but he's not going to be a central part of any scouting report of the Cats. This is really a six-horse engine, the starting five plus Miller. Anything Calipari can get from Wiltjer or Vargas is a distinct bonus, although that might be precisely what Big Blue might require in the crucible of March Madness… at least on the one night when the stars don't shine as brightly as they normally do.
Keys to the Game
1) Attack Davis with the pass and with power. This is truly a game in which offense comes first. Vanderbilt needs to be so efficient and fluid at the offensive end of the floor that it can get Davis into foul trouble, altering the calculus of this contest. The Dores will have a chance to do the deed if they can find ways to pass the ball into the post at angles that will leave Davis caught high, near the elbow or (more likely) the middle of the paint. Ball movement can't be engaged in simply for the sake of moving the ball; it must be done to get Davis on a swivel, moving side to side but then ultimately failing to keep up with Ezeli or perhaps Steve Tchiengang or Lance Goulbourne. If Davis goes for the backside block on a layup attempt, just a slight body lean by a Vandy post player can create in-air body contact and draw a whistle. Perhaps Davis might not pick up four or five fouls in this game, but the larger principle is evident: Make him think instead of react, punching him in the mouth with body contact used to gain leverage near the basket; make Davis reconsider his actions instead of using his instincts to great effect. If Vanderbilt can throw Davis off his game, the Commodores have a strong chance of winning. Doing the deed is the hard part.
2) Don't let Jones feel good. Terrence Jones will make Kentucky virtually untouchable if he plays anywhere close to the ceiling of his capabilities. Ergo, Vanderbilt can't let him develop any confidence on Saturday. Moreover, a strong defensive effort against Jones will allow the rest of the Dores to maintain their own defensive assignments, particularly against Lamb on the perimeter. Jones isn't the best Wildcat. He's not the most productive one. He's not the smartest player on the floor for Kentucky, and he's not the most energetic one. He is, however, the player John Calipari needs to unleash. Therefore, Vanderbilt has to stop him. A big day from Jones will almost certainly point to a Kentucky victory.
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