Basketball Scouting Report: Kentucky
Can anyone remember a day quite like Saturday, January 12, 2014, in the history of Vanderbilt sports? While the Commodores host big, bad Kentucky at Memorial Gym, the emotional center of the Vanderbilt community might actually reside within the province of pigskin and not the realm of roundball. It's hard to believe, yes, but it's also hard to dispute. Nevertheless, a basketball game will be played on Saturday, and nothing's going to change that fact. Depending on how the first half of this game goes, halftime – which will begin near 4:15 p.m. Eastern time – should prove to be an interesting 15 minutes for Commodore Nation.
A Vanderbilt-Kentucky basketball game in Memorial Gym is not supposed to be overshadowed by a January football story, but these are interesting times in which we live. Moreover, the stature of Dores-Cats took a hit earlier this week when Vanderbilt's leading scorer, Eric McClellan, was suspended from the team for the remainder of the season. That's the fourth major contributor to be lost since the end of the 2012-2013 season due to an unexpected suspension, injury, or departure. Vanderbilt has only seven scholarship players right now, severely limiting coach Kevin Stallings's options… and meaning the almost-certain use of more zone defenses over the next two months.
It's hard to apply a firm set of expectations to the Commodores at this point; the eventual grade for this season is almost surely going to be "incomplete," because Vanderbilt has not lost a succession of role players. VU has watched four of its top seven players leave the picture for assorted reasons. If ever there was a time for players to learn how to play so-called "junk" or "mickey-mouse" defenses (the triangle and two, the box and one) in order to preserve some man-to-man principles while covering areas of the court, this is it. The use of those kinds of defenses might be able to preserve the stamina of the active players still on this roster. Stallings has to at least consider how he can shepherd a small roster through two full months of competition.
The nasty part of this game for Vanderbilt, given its depleted roster, is that Kentucky is very fresh. The Wildcats took a week and a half off after their Dec. 28 win over Louisville, which also happened to be the team's first win of appreciable consequence this season. (Yes, Kentucky beat Boise State and a Belmont squad that upended North Carolina, but the Wildcats lacked a top-level scalp until they defeated the defending national champions.) Having gained a lot of time to regroup over the holidays, Kentucky – laden with freshmen, as has been the case the previous few seasons – hopes to improve in January. The Wildcats did indeed ripen into a powerhouse in 2012 but went in the exact opposite direction last January. This year, it seems likely that you'll see something very much in the middle of those two extremes.
The unfortunate reality for Vanderbilt is that without ample reinforcements, the Dores are going to find it hard to keep up with Kentucky for 40 minutes. Stallings will have to give starters breathers just before each media timeout so that he can steal an extra two minutes of actual rest time. The patchwork lineups he throws onto the court will have to limit damage and hand the baton back to the starters.
Forward/Center – Willie Cauley-Stein – Sophomore, 7-0, 244; 2013-14: 9 points per game, 7.9 rebounds per game, 3.9 blocked shots per game
Cauley-Stein teamed with Nerlens Noel (before Noel got injured last season) to form an imposing wall in front of the rim. This season, Cauley-Stein is the unquestioned rim protector on the Wildcats, a player who is almost entirely a concern for Vanderbilt when the Commodores have the ball. He's not that much of a problem for VU as a scorer; keeping him off the glass while maneuvering around him in the paint will be the Dores' foremost challenges on Saturday.
Forward – Julius Randle – Freshman, 6-9, 250; 2013-14: 17.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 1.6 assists per game
When you're averaging 17 and 11 in your freshman season on a team whose perimeter players have struggled to find themselves, you know you're made of next-level material. Randle is a shoo-in to leave school after one season and cash an NBA paycheck. It's virtually impossible to see how he won't be a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Randle is, simply put – and this is a term of admiration, not denigration – a beast. He's a young man in a grown adult's body. Does he need to work on his face-up game? Sure. That will come in time. For now, it's really hard to handle Randle when he backs down his man in the post. He's so good at carving out space and enabling his body to create high-percentage shots near the rim. A zone defense makes all the sense in the world, not just because it might keep VU's legs fresh, but because it would aim to reduce Randle's effectiveness as a low-post force. Notice that Randle averages 1.6 assists per game. Is that a product of his passing ability or of the fact that Kentucky has talented players who can finish shots after catching Randle's deliveries? Vanderbilt needs to force other UK players to hit shots. Prying the ball out of Randle's hands is advised in this game.
Guard – James Young – Freshman, 6-6, 215; 2013-14: 14.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg
Young threw down 26 points against Mississippi State this past Wednesday, hitting 8-of-18 field goals, 3-of-10 from three-point range. That kind of stat line is somewhat inconclusive in terms of pointing to specific strengths in Young's game. Given Vanderbilt's roster limitations, it's wise to force Young to shoot more threes and dare him to make a higher percentage of them. If Young goes 3-of-10 from three-point range in this game and doesn't get as many two-point looks, the Commodores will be happy.
Guard – Andrew Harrison – Freshman, 6-6, 215; 2013-14: 10.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.3 apg
This Harrison brother has struggled for a larger portion of the season, but he did come alive against Louisville, scoring 18 points in a difference-making effort that ought to feed his sense of confidence. Vanderbilt has to expect Andrew Harrison's best in this game and plan accordingly.
Guard – Aaron Harrison – Freshman, 6-6, 218; 2013-14: 14 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.3 apg
This has been the more consistent Harrison brother, the player who has taken on more of a leadership role in a starting five comprised entirely of underclassmen. No one would confuse Aaron Harrison's leadership with that of Anthony Davis – the centerpiece of the 2012 national championship team who made all his teammates better – but Harrison has also not sulked and grumbled the way so many of Kentucky's 2013 youngsters did. The tone is certainly better in Lexington this season – that's partly attributable to the work of John Calipari, but Aaron Harrison also deserves a large share of the credit for helping the Wildcats to persevere. That perseverance will be needed to a greater degree in the coming months.
You know you're a fairly formidable team when Alex Poythress, an active power forward averaging roughly six rebounds per game, is coming off the bench. Calipari also turns to guard Dominique Hawkins, who averages almost 14 minutes per game, and center Dakari Johnson, who averages almost 10 minutes per game and averages roughly three boards per contest.
Keys to the Game
1) Survive the first 32 minutes; then find a way home. Vanderbilt just has to stay in this game by any (legal) means necessary and have a fighting chance at the under-eight timeout in the second half. The Commodores can't win this game if their lack of both depth and scoring punch puts them in a deep ditch. An all-hands-on-deck mentality must exist, giving the Commodores the energy and urgency they'll need to stay the course against Big Blue.
2) Mix defenses with an emphasis on daring Kentucky to shoot the three. It's hard to deny this statement: Vanderbilt just has to hope that it can clog the paint as much as possible within a zone-defense-based framework and hope that Kentucky misses a truckload of threes. If Kentucky shoots a lot of threes and misses, Vanderbilt can win. If the Wildcats get to the rim or knock down the long ball, the Dores aren't likely to have the resources needed to keep pace with Calipari's crew.
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