Second Scouting Report: Kentucky
There aren't many, if any, team goals for the Vanderbilt men's basketball team to accomplish. Barring a miracle run in the 2013 SEC Tournament, the Dores won't compete in any game played after Selection Sunday. They would have to win five of these next six regular season games and make the SEC semifinals just to have an outside chance at the NIT, a tournament that is likely to be heavily populated by SEC teams this season. No, Vanderbilt doesn't have a whole lot to play for – pride, yes, and certainly the desire to improve so that 2013-2014 can become a fruitful experience, but not any gleaming or shiny championship goal.
What can Vanderbilt really strive for at this point? The Commodores can play spoiler, that's what. Games against Mississippi State, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina will lack sex appeal and sizzle. Those four contests will occur off the national radar, in a television equivalent of Siberia. However, this game against Kentucky and the March 6 showdown against Florida will give VU two final measuring-stick moments, two big-stage occasions in which this team can make a name for itself. Of these two games, this confrontation with Kentucky matters a little bit more, wouldn't you say?
For one thing, winning at Florida is going to be extremely difficult to achieve. Winning at Kentucky on a night when the Wildcats (and national basketball writers) have no real clue about how they'll respond to the absence of Nerlens Noel is much more attainable for VU. Moreover, recent comments by Kentucky head coach John Calipari following a 30-point loss at Tennessee this past Saturday have unsettled the Big Blue Nation, casting doubt on both Calipari's command of the situation and on the toughness of his players. Kentucky could come out inspired, but these young and frail Wildcats could just as easily implode before the nation's eyes inside Rupp Arena. Vanderbilt could swipe this game, and if it can, the result would easily wipe away the bitter taste of that 60-58 loss in Memorial Gym on Jan. 10, when an obvious officiating mistake (in which Kentucky was given a basket that shouldn't have counted) helped the Cats escape Nashville with a win. If Stallings could take down Calipari and knock Big Blue out of the Big Dance, Vanderbilt would have its second straight "time capsule" win over Kentucky in as many seasons. One year after winning their second SEC Tournament championship by defeating Kentucky in New Orleans, Vanderbilt could then say that it knocked the Cats into the NIT.
Yes, Vanderbilt doesn't have all that much to play for at the tail-end of this season. It has this game, however. The Commodores need to make it count.
This past Saturday, everyone in the college basketball community wondered what was going to happen to Kentucky with Nerlens Noel injured and unavailable for the remainder of the season, due to a torn ACL suffered against Florida on Feb. 12. Noel had been averaging more than four blocked shots and nine rebounds per game, making him the Wildcats' most indispensable player by a considerable margin. Guards didn't have to smother opposing ballhandlers; they just needed to steer them toward Noel, who was always there as the final and most intimidating roadblock on the way to the rim. Noel covered a multitude of defensive inadequacies. He papered over the weaknesses of the other Wildcats, using his combination of energy, acuity and athleticism to become a dynamic defensive player on a team that has had trouble scoring for much of the season. Noel was the centerpiece of everything this flawed Kentucky team tried to do. Without him, the Wildcats didn't know who they were or what they had. The Tennessee game was going to give the Cats – and the nation – the first clear glimpse of what Kentucky basketball looked like without Noel.
You know the rest of the story.
Kentucky surrendered 50 first-half points to a Tennessee team that scored 58 in each of its two games against Vanderbilt. The Vols have a thoroughly mediocre offense, but it came alive against Kentucky, building a late 88-50 lead before eight window-dressing points by Big Blue made the final score much less decisive than the game actually was. The fact that the final score was 88-58 – and unreflective of the beatdown Kentucky suffered – tells you all you need to know.
Since Kentucky will not have Noel in its lineup on Selection Sunday, the Wildcats are going to be judged by their performances the next three and a half weeks. If Kentucky loses this game to Vanderbilt, it will have to beat Missouri on Saturday and likely topple Florida at home on March 9 if it wants to make the NCAA tournament. If Kentucky beats Vanderbilt and wins its other games against SEC teams that won't make the NCAAs, the Wildcats might be able to sneak into the field if they can merely beat Missouri and reach the SEC Tournament final, without even beating Florida. That body of work would at least keep Kentucky in the conversation on Selection Sunday, but it would not make the Wildcats a lock.
The point remains: Vanderbilt can deal a crippling blow to Kentucky's March Madness hopes. That's the prize VU is competing for in a season that can't promise many more exciting possibilities.
KENTUCKY STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Field goal percentage: 48.1. Change: -1.1 percent (49.2 on Jan. 10, the last time these teams met).
Three-point field goal percentage: 36.2. Change: -0.9 percent (37.1 on Jan. 10).
True field goal shooting percentage (a metric that includes three-point shooting and free throw shooting): 56.5. Change: -0.7 percent (57.2 on Jan. 10).
Points scored per possession: 1.071. Change: -0.041 points (1.112 on Jan. 10).
Points allowed per possession: 0.899. Change: +0.065 points allowed (0.834 on Jan. 10).
Assists per game: 14.3. Change: -1.9 assists (16.2 on Jan. 10).
Forward – Kyle Wiltjer – Sophomore, 6-10, 239 2012-13: 11.8 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game
This is the position where Nerlens Noel used to play, and you can immediately appreciate why Tennessee was able to run wild at the offensive end of the floor against Big Blue this past Saturday. Wiltjer, like Noel, is 6-10, but that's where the similarities between the two players end. Wiltjer plays away from the basket. A volume shooter, Wiltjer hits 40.8 percent of his threes and is everything Noel isn't. He's a perimeter player, a finesse player, and an offense-first player. If Vanderbilt isn't attacking Wiltjer in the low post at every opportunity on Wednesday night, the Commodores will be doing it wrong.
Forward – Willie Cauley-Stein – Freshman, 7-0, 244; 2012-13: 7.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 blocks per game
Cauley-Stein's scoring is down 0.3 points (7.8 on Jan. 10). His rebounding is down 0.6 rebounds (5.9 on Jan. 10), and his blocked shots are down by 0.4 blocks (2.1 on Jan. 10). Yet, despite those statistical trends, Cauley-Stein has still been one of the better non-Noel players on the roster. Cauley-Stein's energy is more consistent from game to game. He does not slack off or drift through the motions. He makes a robust effort to challenge opposing big men in the paint. He attacks the glass and is a credible shot blocker. Yet, for all of his virtues, Cauley-Stein simply isn't as quick or instinctive as Noel is. He doesn't respond as fluidly to various plays and movements. He's not as explosive a leaper, and his footwork isn't as deft. Cauley-Stein tries hard, but his skill set is just not expansive or polished, and that's why Noel's departure is such a negative development for the Wildcats.
Guard – Julius Mays – Senior, 6-2, 192; 2012-13: 9.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3 assists per game
Mays' scoring is up 0.3 points (9.1 on Jan. 10). His rebounding is down by 0.1 boards (2.9 on Jan. 10), and his assists are down by 0.5 dimes (3.5 on Jan. 10). Of all the players on the Kentucky roster not named Noel, Mays has been the most dependable. A veteran presence in a sea of underclassmen, "Uncle Julius" has been a steadying influence for this team. He is not supremely skilled and has not been a central figure in the white-hot Lexington spotlight, but that under-the-radar profile is precisely why Mays should not be associated with Kentucky's on-court problems. In endgame situations, he is fearless. Vanderbilt must try to take him away if this is an even-steven game in the final minutes of regulation.
Guard – Jarrod Polson – Junior, 6-2, 189; 2012-13: 2.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg
After being stuck at the back end of Kentucky's rotation for the first nine games of the SEC season, Polson is being given a chance by Calipari to prove himself. This is partly a motivational tactic designed to shake up the UK roster, but it's also an acknowledgment that previously existing lineup combinations haven't been working. In the first nine games of the SEC season, Polson averaged 9.6 minutes per game. In Kentucky's last three contests, Polson has averaged 19 minutes per game. He played 22 minutes against Tennessee, the most since Dec. 4 against Samford. Vanderbilt must brace for a high-energy effort from a young man who knows that he's being given an enormous opportunity, one that comes with great responsibility.
Guard – Archie Goodwin – Freshman, 6-4, 198; 2012-13: 13.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg
Goodwin's numbers are slightly down compared to Jan. 10 (-2.2 points per game, -0.7 boards, and -0.6 assists), but statistics don't begin to tell the story of how Goodwin's – and Kentucky's – season has not materialized into something worth remembering. Calipari said after the Tennessee loss that "We have a couple of guys who aren't real coachable." During the game, Calipari reportedly yelled to Goodwin, "I can't coach you!" Reserve forward Alex Poythress (more on him in a bit…) is viewed as the other uncoachable player in the Wildcats' stable of anything-but-stable athletes. Goodwin's jump shot has been undependable, but what's much worse as far as Calipari's concerned is his lack of strength and awareness on defense. If Kentucky can't become a much more seamless defensive team – one that makes crisp and precise movements and provides helpside support on dribble penetration – it will be rendered toothless without Noel. Goodwin's defense on the perimeter has to get a lot better if Kentucky is going to make the NCAAs.
In what is still an eight-man rotation in Noel's absence (although the Tennessee game offers a very limited sample size), Calipari uses three primary reserves: forwards Alex Poythress and Jon Hood plus guard Ryan Harrow, who has been demoted from the starting role he once held. Poythress averages 11.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. His scoring is down 2.3 points from Jan. 10 (14 points on the dot), and he's been a conspicuously mediocre player in February on a team that has failed to shine. Poythress has not scored more than eight points in any of Kentucky's February games, and he's corralled more than four rebounds in a February game only once (against South Carolina on Feb. 5).
Harrow, UK's other main reserve (with Polson now taking his place in the starting five), offers a more complicated tale. Harrow made important plays for this team in road wins at Ole Miss and Texas A&M three weeks ago, and he was decent against South Carolina and Auburn two weeks ago. Last week, however, Harrow crashed and burned, getting shut out in 37 total minutes against Florida and Tennessee. His total number of turnovers in those two games (three) exceeded his combined total of rebounds and assists (two – one board and one dime).
Hood is the comparative newcomer to the rotation, the player who is seeing the court now that Noel is unavailable.
Keys to the Game
1) Attack the basket and don't settle for jumpers. The Commodores know that without Noel patrolling the paint, Kentucky is both thin and vulnerable near the rim. Vanderbilt must be relentless in pounding the ball to the tin and creating low-post touches that can lead to foul shots. Once in a while, a three-point shot will open up when Kentucky decides to pack in its defense or double-team the post. However, if the spacing is good and help defense doesn't arrive, Vanderbilt's bigs should attempt to go strong to the rack at every opportunity. The Dores' backcourt must resist the temptation to hoist threes early in the shot clock, especially if the ball hasn't been cycled through the post at least once.
2) Limit Kentucky's possessions. With Kentucky in a state of crisis, the Wildcats cannot be expected to shoot for a high percentage. The Wildcats have not been a good shooting team all season, with the exception of Wiltjer, and do not possess a lot of confidence when they attempt jumpers. Vanderbilt has to know that Kentucky needs moments of inspiration in this game, sequences that will allow the Wildcats to feel good about themselves. Hustle and effort plays, usually on the offensive glass, are the kinds of plays that can kick-start a struggling team. Dynamic defensive plays that lead to slam dunks are also the kinds of turning-point turbo-boosters that can awaken the beast within a slumbering, slumping basketball squad. If Vanderbilt keeps Kentucky off the offensive glass and denies the Wildcats cheap points in transition, UK will know that it will have to execute with letter-perfect consistency in order to win. The pressure attached to such a realization can often cause a struggling team to panic. If Vanderbilt doesn't give Kentucky added possessions – and with them, a psychological cushion – the Dores can definitely stage a revolt inside Rupp.
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