Scouting Report: Kentucky

The last time the Vanderbilt Commodores played the Kentucky Wildcats, they won the SEC Basketball Tournament for the second time in school history. Thursday night's clash in Nashville won't make history, but it could change the trajectory of the 2012-2013 season.


These are not the same Commodores who rose to the occasion in New Orleans last March, beating Kentucky in the championship game of the SEC Tournament. That's the bad news for Kevin Stallings as he prepares to face the Wildcats in the 2013 SEC opener. The good news? Big Blue is also a mere shadow of what it was last season. Kentucky has only one upperclassman (Julius Mays) who averages more than 14 minutes per game, and only one junior (Jarrod Polson) who averages more than 13 minutes per game. Coach John Calipari guided a starting lineup with multiple freshmen to a national title last season, but those newbies were thoroughbreds, and now they're pros. This year's collection of underclassmen in Lexington does not possess anything close to the skill level of the 2012 champions. Kentucky is in the midst of a learning curve, a genuine rebuilding process and not the reloading act many pundits were expecting in early November. The Wildcats would have to mow down the SEC in the regular season (losing no more than two or three times) and then win the SEC Tournament to have a chance at a protected seed (four or higher, but four is the likely slot) in the Big Dance. This is a team that can be beaten with rugged defense, patient offense, and reliable foul shooting.

Should Vanderbilt be seen as the favorite in this game? Probably not. However, it should also be said that the Commodores are catching a break by getting their home game versus Big Blue at this point on the schedule. Kentucky is likely to get better and its freshmen are probably going to figure things out as this season continues. Hosting the Wildcats in early February or late January probably wouldn't have been a good thing for Vanderbilt, but an SEC home opener will inject an extra measure of energy into the Dores and the Memorial Gym crowd. At the same time, that abundance of adrenaline could create a tidal wave effect that this Kentucky team is not yet ready to handle.

Put this SEC opener in Rupp Arena, and Kentucky would likely be in position to run through a brick wall and overwhelm Vanderbilt with youthful enthusiasm. In Memorial Gym, the young and uncertain Cats will have to deal with the baseline bench and all the other quirks that go along with playing on VU's home floor. On the merits, Kentucky should be a favorite… but only a very slight one, and much less of a choice than it would be three or four weeks from now. This is a very attainable game for the Commodores. If they can swipe it, the way in which they see themselves – not to mention the rest of a thin SEC – could change. Accordingly, the course of their 2013 campaign could take a dramatic turn for the better.

KENTUCKY AT-A-GLANCE

You're aware of the larger progression (or perhaps, lack of progression) that has defined Kentucky's season. The win over Maryland and the loss to Duke look better now than they did at the time, but that win over Maryland is the only NCAA tournament-worthy accomplishment on the Wildcats' resume. The team's loss at Notre Dame was awful, but Notre Dame is a legitimate Big East contender that will eviscerate other quality teams at home in the coming months.

In many ways, Kentucky's worst game of the season was its 64-55 loss at home to Baylor on Dec. 1. Calipari endured his first loss at Rupp to an opponent that might be no better than a No. 7 or 8 seed in the NCAAs. Baylor isn't remotely as good a team as the one that garnered a No. 3 seed in last season's Big Dance. The Bears play in a weak Big 12 and have already lost to Colorado, Charleston and Northwestern this season. Losing by nine at home to this particular Baylor team tells you how much Kentucky has struggled to this point.

Here's the main tension point of Kentucky's season as it relates to this clash with Vanderbilt: Did the Wildcats use rivalry-fueled adrenaline to play Louisville so closely on Dec. 29, or did that 80-77 loss reveal a team that is really beginning to understand how to play, both individually and as a group?

Kentucky looked outclassed for extended stretches against Louisville. The Wildcats' overall team statistics look really good, but they are the product of many wins over cupcake-level opponents. Against strong defensive teams, the Wildcats flinch, and they did for most of the first 25 minutes against Louisville. However, Kentucky responded to a double-figure deficit in the final 15 minutes, shaving Louisville's lead to two points before succumbing in the final minutes. Players who had been toiling in the shadows for the first month and a half of the season – Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Ryan Harrow – played their best basketball in a Kentucky uniform.

Did the desperation of the moment drive the young Wildcats to perform better than ever before, or is this team truly gaining a higher basketball IQ as we speak? We'll find out more in this game against Vanderbilt, but the key realization for Stallings to make is that he has to create a game in which Kentucky will have every chance to doubt itself anew.

KENTUCKY STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS

Field goal percentage: 49.2. National rank: 15 (out of 345).

Three-point field goal percentage: 37.1. National rank: 56.

True field goal shooting percentage (a metric that includes three-point shooting and free throw shooting): 57.2. National rank: 28.

Points scored per possession: 1.112. National rank: 17.

Points allowed per possession: 0.834. National rank: 13.

Assists per game: 16.2. National rank: 34.

(Take those stats for what they're worth; again, Kentucky has built its stats based on easy wins against several inferior foes: Lafayette, Morehead State, Long Island, Samford, Portland, Lipscomb, Marshall, and Eastern Michigan.)

Starting Lineup

Forward – Nerlens Noel –
Freshman, 6-10, 228 2012-13: 10.3 points per game, 9.3 rebounds per game, 3.5 blocked shots per game

It's not that Noel isn't trying hard or is somehow failing to make his presence felt on the floor. The much-hyped recruit arrived in Lexington as a shot blocker, and he's lived up to the billing, though he's no Anthony Davis (which is why some might see him as a disappointment; that's not Noel's fault, though). Noel is a central presence on the glass, giving Calipari plenty of production. The problem with Noel is that he has a very limited repertoire of low-post moves at the offensive end of the floor. He's basically a half-a-loaf player who maxes out at only one end of the floor, not both. If Vanderbilt keeps Noel's offensive production slightly below his season-long averages, it should be in good shape. Keeping in mind that Kentucky's aggregate stats have been fattened by cupcakes, it's a good target for Vanderbilt to try to hold the Wildcats well below their averages. If Noel is a nine-per-game rebounder, Vanderbilt should try to make him a six-rebound player in this contest. If Noel is a 10-per-game scorer, the Commodores should try to hold him to six points on Thursday and generate similar results for other members of the Cats.

Forward – Willie Cauley-Stein – Freshman, 7-0, 244; 2012-13: 7.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.1 blocks per game

Cauley-Stein came alive in the final 15 minutes against Louisville, as mentioned above. He was an electrifying force for Big Blue, providing a whirlwind of energy on the glass and in the paint. Cauley-Stein has the body of a very disruptive low-post defender and rebounder. If that Louisville performance was indeed an indication that he is beginning to "get it," Cauley-Stein is on the cusp of ripening into a very imposing player whose numbers should skyrocket in Southeastern Conference competition. His shooting percentage is 61.6, which points to a large number of layups and dunks. Vanderbilt's bigs have to push him away from the basket whenever and however possible (sans fouling, of course).

Guard – Julius Mays – Senior, 6-2, 192; 2012-13: 9.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.5 assists per game

Mays's role on this team is not to stand out, but to blend in, to be a cohesive part of Kentucky's halfcourt offense. Mays did not receive extended minutes on last year's championship team, so it's not as though the senior is a supremely battle-hardened player. Nevertheless, he is more attuned to the rhythms of a college basketball season, more mindful of what it takes to be a winner. Mays might not deliver a dazzling stat line in this game, but he can make a big impact on this contest simply by providing leadership, sound defense, and a calming voice on the floor, both during plays and during dead-ball situations.

Guard – Ryan Harrow – Sophomore, 6-2, 170; 2012-13: 9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.4 apg

The thing to note about Harrow is that he has played in only nine of Kentucky's 13 games this season, which makes his overall numbers less indicative of his level of play in recent weeks. Harrow scored 17 points against Louisville and helped the Wildcats to threaten the Cardinals late in the second half. Harrow is probably the Kentucky player whose level of quality most substantially exceeds his statistical output. Vanderbilt has to take him very seriously… more than the raw numbers can ever suggest or indicate.

Guard – Archie Goodwin – Freshman, 6-4, 198; 2012-13: 15.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.8 apg

Goodwin scored 22 points against a Louisville defense that is one of the best in the country, and he did so on the road. Goodwin, as a 6-4 guard, will play over the top of defenders sometimes. He is not a high-volume three-point shooter (only 25 attempts this season), which tells you that he likes to get into the paint… and is consistently able to do so. Goodwin is certainly an offensive threat, but he's a threat because of his ability to create high-percentage looks for himself. Notice his rebounding prowess from his spot on the wing.

Bench

In what is generally an eight-man rotation, Calipari uses three primary reserves: forwards Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer plus guard Jarrod Polson. Poythress has been one of Kentucky's more consistent players, getting starter-level minutes while averaging 14 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Poythress is a 64.2-percent shooter, marking him as a man who gets many of his points from bunnies and dunks. Wiltjer is 6-10, but he plays away from the basket. A volume shooter, Wiltjer hits 43.4 percent of his threes and must be forced to put the ball on the deck. Vanderbilt has to run him off the three-point line. Polson is a high-energy defender who makes Kentucky much stronger at that end of the floor. Each of these three reserves make significant contributions, but Wiltjer and Polson have to become more complete players in order for Kentucky to reach its potential this season.

Keys to the Game

1) Make. Kentucky. Shoot.
The Commodores could get punished within a few feet of the basket, but if they force the Wildcats to shoot mid-range jumpers, they could contain Kentucky's offense. Wiltjer has to be chased away from the three-point line, but every other Kentucky player lacks a golden shooting touch from medium or long distances. If Vanderbilt is committed to taking away the paint and then sealing the Cats off the glass, it can play this game on even terms.

2) Minimize turnovers. In what should be a defensive grinder, the Commodores – who shouldn't be expected to play a precise or elegant game at the offensive end of the floor – merely need to ensure that they don't commit turnovers, especially the kinds of turnovers that lead to easy baskets for Kentucky on fast breaks. If Vanderbilt gives away no points, it can win by dint of its defensive effort against a shaky opponent.

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