Second-Time Scouting Report: Kentucky
Naturally, Vanderbilt's men's basketball program would experience a transformative moment if it can somehow win in Rupp Arena this Saturday. Becoming the first road team to beat a John Calipari-coached Kentucky squad in Lexington would do wonders for Kevin Stallings and Co. in the weeks before the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. However, let's take a realistic approach: This is not the kind of situation in which a loss would reflect poorly on the VU program. Cleveland State? Yes. Indiana State? Yes. Arkansas? A little bit. Mississippi State? Not with the Bulldogs' talent, no, and not since Vanderbilt made good plays in that game, only to fail to hit shots at crunch time.
It really is different when you play Kentucky on the road. No visitor wins in Rupp – it's the law of the Calipari jungle. Teams who travel to the Big Barn in the Bluegrass are playing with house money. Therefore, the Vanderbilt basketball community is thrust into an odd situation: Near the end of a season that has not met preseason expectations, the VU crew can actually play a game free from the tentacles of Old Demon Pressure. The Dores can (and should) play a mentally liberated game in which they have nothing to lose and let it fly for 40 minutes. It's a great time for this oft-burdened team to cast its baggage aside and shed its basketball inhibitions. This is a time in which Stallings and his staff have a chance to shape a different mindset in advance of the defining basketball battles that lie ahead.
Here is the larger context to appreciate about this Kentucky game: It is the last game of the SEC season (barring a reunion with the Wildcats at the SEC Tournament in New Orleans) in which Vanderbilt will not be expected to win. Florida's loss of key glue guy and rebounder Will Yeguete makes the Gators an inferior team compared to VU, especially away from Gainesville. Vanderbilt will be expected to beat Florida in Nashville next week and then take care of Tennessee. In the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt would be expected to handle everyone other than Big Blue, underscoring the aberrational nature of this contest… and the opportunities that exist within it.
The sense of possibility attached to this second go-round with Kentucky is not found in the hope for a conquest of Rupp Arena. That's too ambitious for a team that couldn't solve Bud Walton Arena in SEC play. No, the true goal for this second square dance with the Cats is to play well and hard for 40 minutes. The last time the Dores faced Kentucky, they crafted a brilliant 13-minute stretch at the start of the second half, one of the best 13-minute stretches any UK opponent has thrown down this season. However, 13 minutes constitute roughly one third of a full game. Stallings needs to see if his team can sustain a high-level effort and prove to itself that it can endure, persist and persevere. It will be extremely hard to win in Rupp Arena, but if Vanderbilt can merely run the race and stand in the ring for 15 full rounds, not just five or six, it can build the mental armor that will enable future games against inferior teams – Florida is one of them now – to end with the Dores walking off the court in triumph.
Only two weeks have passed since the last meeting with Kentucky, and the Wildcats haven't played a whole lot since then. Kentucky received Mississippi State's best shot in Starkville and calmly turned aside the Bulldogs down the stretch. This is a team breathing confidence, the very confidence that enabled it to absorb Vandy's 13-minute masterclass on Feb/ 11 and respond with a strong seven-minute finishing kick at Memorial Gym. The dimensions of this second-time scouting report will be apparent through the prism of that clash in Nashville.
BONUS SECTION: STATISTICAL PROFILE
-- Kentucky is one of the top 25 teams in the nation in points per game (77.6), rebounds per game (36.6), and field goal shooting percentage (.485). The .485 shooting percentage places Kentucky 16th in the Division I-A ranks.
-- Kentucky allows only 58.2 points per game, roughly NINE points below the national average of 67.1.
-- Kentucky's field goal percentage defense is elite; the Wildcats allow opponents to hit 36.3 percent of all field goal attempts, well below the national average of 43.4 percent. Kentucky is first in the nation and the SEC in field goal percentage defense.
-- Points per possession scored: 1.14 (second-best in the SEC, fifth-best in the nation).
-- Points per possession allowed: 0.85 (best in the SEC, fourth-best in the nation).
-- Effective field goal percentage (shooting percentage weighted to include three-point shots): 53.6, which is third in the SEC and 30th in the United States. Kentucky hits 52.4 percent of its two-point shots (second in the SEC, 27th in the nation) and 38.1 percent of its threes (third in the SEC, 31st in the nation).
Forward – Anthony Davis – Freshman, 6-10, 220 2011-12: 13.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.8 blocks per game
In "those brilliant 13 minutes," Vanderbilt attacked Davis, got him into foul trouble, and opened up the halfcourt for high-quality scoring chances. The Commodores didn't flinch or hesitate. They went right at Davis after a first half in which Kentucky punched VU in the mouth. It's worth pointing out that Davis got into early foul trouble against Ole Miss on Feb. 18, allowing the Rebels to enjoy their own 13-minute period of success against the Wildcats. Getting Davis into foul trouble is truly the portal to prosperity against Kentucky. This must be done by making Davis leave the paint, forcing him to roam 10 or more feet from the basket and worry about his responsibility to defend the rim. When you pull Davis toward the perimeter, you can solve Kentucky's defense. If you can't move Davis around and put him in "in-between" places on the floor, you're not going to ambush the Wildcats.
Forward – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Freshman, 6-7, 232; 2011-12: 12.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Gilchrist wasn't a prime performer for Kentucky against Vanderbilt, but he didn't have to be. His constant work in the trenches, his energy as a defender and rebounder, were enough to help Kentucky contain the Commodores in a daunting road environment at Memorial Gym. Conceptually, the plan of attack against Kidd-Gilchrist isn't complicated: Match his energy at all times. It's simply quite difficult – ridiculously so – to do so, because no player in college basketball has matched Kidd-Gilchrist's energy over the long march of this season.
Forward – Terrence Jones – Sophomore, 6-9, 252; 2011-12: 12.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg
Jones remains Kentucky's defining player, the man who – if on – will make this team untouchable, and who – if off – will make the Wildcats vulnerable. Stallings pushed the right buttons against Kentucky in the second half of the Feb. 11 game. He went zone against Kentucky, which is how coaches should attempt to counter the Wildcats' size and strength. Moreover, Jones is the better man to go zone against. Teammates Doron Lamb and (off the bench) Darius Miller are better pure shooters who hit key shots against VU in the second half two weeks ago. Jones got really hot late in the first half, but was a non-factor in the second 20 minutes, especially "those brilliant 13 minutes" we keep talking about. If Vanderbilt can keep Jones out of the lane, the building blocks of a solid defensive performance can be put in place.
Guard – Doron Lamb – Sophomore, 6-4, 210; 2011-12: 13.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .487 3-PT%
Lamb continues to quietly impress. As mentioned above, he hit a few big shots late in the Feb. 11 game after struggling for most of the night. Lamb doesn't get rattled; he is rarely imposing or overwhelming, but he's unflappable, a terrifically icy competitor who serves as a perfect emotional counterbalance for the fiery energy of Kentucky's low-post players. Lamb is a leavening agent, a calming presence, on this ballclub, a core source of this team's winning mixture on the court.
Guard – Marquis Teague – Freshman, 6-2, 189; 2011-12: 9.6 ppg, 4.7 apg, 2.5 rpg
Teague really elevated his game against Vanderbilt, especially in the first half. Teague is gradually morphing into the leader Calipari hoped he'd become. Like any point guard on a loaded squad, Teague's main challenge has been to carry himself with more authoritativeness and confidence. His first-half destruction of Brad Tinsley showed exactly that. Tinsley responded with a terrific second half, but Teague had still grown as a player, a reality affirmed in Kentucky's second-half comeback at Mississippi State this past Tuesday. Teague's upward trajectory is a big reason to put stock in the Wildcats when March Madness rolls around. Tinsley would do well just to match the performance he posted against Teague in Nashville, given that the quality of his second half cancelled out the first-half bludgeoning he endured at Teague's hands.
A slight change has occurred in the way the Kentucky bench should be evaluated. No, Eloy Vargas remains an unquestioned liability for the Wildcats, and the aforementioned Darius Miller is still a reliable scorer-shooter off the pine. However, forward Kyle Wiltjer has been able to provide quality spot minutes for Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist as a rebounder, defender, and all-around "grunt guy" in the post. If Calipari can continue to steal 10 to 15 minutes a game from Wiltjer, keeping his main horses fresh and free from severe foul trouble, Kentucky will become that much more difficult to deal with. Vanderbilt and any other SEC team will want to study film of Wiltjer's quality performance against Ole Miss on Feb. 18 and find ways to ruthlessly attack him.
Keys to the Game
1) Attack Davis with the pass and with power. This key from the Feb. 11 game remains unchanged, for every obvious and conceivable reason. Doing so is the hard part, but the primacy of getting Davis in foul trouble should not be questioned. It is the top priority for Vanderbilt and any Kentucky opponent over the next month.
2) Tinsley time. Here's where we can change one of the two game keys. Brad Tinsley really shut up his doubters (this one included) with his second-half performance against Kentucky two weeks ago. He was ballstrong; he flew across the court on defense; he knocked down big-time shots. He played, all things considered, his best and most resolute half of ball in his VU career. If this Tinsley can turn in another sterling second half, VU will be competitive. If this incarnation of Tinsley can appear for 40 full minutes, we might have ourselves a barnburner on Saturday.
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