Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Kentucky

The Vanderbilt women's basketball team was supposed to have had an easier time against the back end of its 16-game regular season SEC schedule compared to the front end. Yet, that's not how the winter of 2014 has unfolded. Do the Commodores need to play the best teams in order to be at their best? We might find out on Sunday afternoon.


Let's get this straight: You're going to tell me that Vanderbilt went 6-3 in the daunting nine-game stretch that began the SEC regular season, and that the Dores are 1-5 in the supposedly "softer" seven-game closing sequence, with Kentucky left on the slate? It's been a baffling, upside-down season for Vanderbilt. A team that seemed to have a genuine shot at the SEC title on the morning of Jan. 26 – and which rebounded brilliantly from a two-game losing skid to beat a superb Texas A&M side on Feb. 2 – is now immersed in a tailspin… even though it is rarely if ever getting blown off the court. The mind reels when attempting to comprehend not just the negative turn this season has taken, but the odd nature of this slide. Losing one four- or five-point game after another has given this SEC season a Groundhog Day feel. There's no new spring for this team, no rays of sunshine and hope. Dark clouds and cold winds continue to dominate the landscape, as a team that exhibited so many marvelous competitive qualities suddenly cannot pull 50-50 games out of the fire in the closing minutes of regulation.

Want to gain an even greater appreciation for how weird this season continues to be? Vanderbilt solved those foul-shooting woes we talked about in the preview for the Florida game. The Commodores went 21-of-26 from the foul line on Thursday night against the Gators… and sure enough, that performance still didn't matter. Why? The Dores couldn't hit enough live-ball shots, especially two-pointers. Even when this team fixes one issue here, a new or perhaps unexpected deficiency arises somewhere else. It's one of the worst feelings a team can have as it approaches the most critical point of a season.

This brings up an interesting tension point heading into Sunday afternoon's game against the Kentucky Wildcats.

It could very well be that Vanderbilt is already on the 10-seed line for the NCAA tournament. However, if Vanderbilt is still on the "9 line" (in the parlance of what we know as bracketology or "bracketological speech"), being a 10 seed is better than being a 9. No top seeds await in the round of 32 if the round of 64 can be successfully conquered. Yet, does VU really want to see if it can get a 10 seed? Probably not. This team is so starved for wins at this point that it has to do whatever it can to rediscover the resilient identity it found in January, which seems so long ago. Getting a 10 seed might be great, but that has to take a back seat to the bigger and more urgent need: Remembering what it's like to win.

You've seen Vanderbilt struggle against the middle tier of the SEC. Perhaps playing Kentucky – a team with a number in parentheses next to its name on the box score – will reinvigorate the Dores, who might not play with as much pressure on their backs now that they're a clear underdog. What makes this game even more fascinating is that, as you'll read in the next few paragraphs, Kentucky is more similar to Vanderbilt than you might think… at least in one key respect.

KENTUCKY AT-A-GLANCE

It may surprise you, but Kentucky's personality as a team – its inclinations and its body of work in the SEC – largely mirrors Vanderbilt's. Coach Matthew Mitchell's team beat LSU, as did Vanderbilt. It beat Texas A&M, as did VU. The Wildcats defeated Tennessee… as did the Dores. Yet, this team lost to Alabama at home – sound familiar? It lost to Florida when the Gators didn't have Christin Mercer on their roster. Unlike Vanderbilt, Kentucky won at Mississippi State… but the Wildcats needed overtime to take care of the Bulldogs. Had Kentucky lost that game, the similarities between its SEC resume and Vanderbilt's would have grown… and Big Blue would have been just one game ahead of VU in the SEC standings, no longer in position to get a bye to the quarterfinals in the SEC Tournament. Yes, Kentucky should be seen as the better team in this matchup… but not by much – not when you look at how this season has progressed. Kentucky has VU's penchant for self-destruction, only to a slightly lesser extent (emphasis on slightly). This team beat Baylor – one of the powerhouses in women's basketball – and yet is a distant fourth in the SEC, closer to the middle of the pack than the top three teams in the league.

And you thought Vanderbilt has endured a confusing SEC season…

Starting Lineup

Center/Forward – Samarie Walker –
Senior, 6-1; 2013-14: 9.6 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game, 1.3 steals per game

Vanderbilt struggles with active post players, so Walker is going to be a very tough matchup for the Dores in this game. Walker's shooting percentage is 51.6, which is largely attributable to the fact that she gets a fair amount of putbacks and other shots close to the rim.

Forward – DeNesha Stallworth – Senior, 6-3; 2013-14: 11.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.5 steals per game, 1 blocked shot per game

Stallworth gives the Wildcats a second source of muscular rebounding prowess. Similar to Walker, Stallworth shoots over 50 percent from the floor, while no other members of the Cats' six core players (the starting five plus sixth woman Jennifer O'Neill) shoot better than 40.1 percent from the field. Vanderbilt's worst fear in this game is that Kentucky could pose South Carolina-sized problems for the Dores with their length and power near the basket. The point to mention here is that since Kentucky has a lot of high-quality rebounders, Vanderbilt's most direct path to victory must lie in its ability to hit more shots, thereby reducing the need to have to chase misses on the glass.

Guard – Bria Goss – Junior, 5-10; 2013-14: 9.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.2 steals per game

Goss is an excellent rebounder for her size; the fact that Walker and Thompson grab so many boards to begin with only amplifies Goss's contributions as a rebounder from her position in the backcourt. Mitchell has built a program in Lexington whose identity is based on making hustle plays and winning battles for loose balls. Goss very much fits into the model of what Kentucky women's basketball aspires to cultivate on the court.

Guard – Janee Thompson – Sophomore, 5-7; 2013-14: 9.3 ppg, 2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.2 steals per game

This is Kentucky's best passer, which should make Vanderbilt aware of what it needs to do to limit the flow and continuity of the Wildcats' offense. If you're reading these stat lines for individual players, you might also notice that Thompson – like the rest of her teammates – averages at least one steal per game. That's what Kentucky is; it's what Kentucky does. This team, at its best, collects a lot of steals and wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. This is not a team that is content to merely stop the ball, force a bad shot, and rebound the miss; it wants to collect turnovers and run off them.

Guard – Kastine Evans – Senior, 5-8; 2013-14: 8.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.1 steals per game

It's true that Kentucky has a deep bench and that the Wildcats like to win by wearing down opponents through the use of cumulative pressure from many sources. Yet, Evans is one of three seniors in the starting five. Her modest contributions need to become more substantial contributions if this team is going to be more of a factor in March.

Bench

One of the best sixth women in college basketball is guard Jennifer O'Neill, who scored 43 points in Kentucky's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6 in AT&T Stadium, the site of a main-stage doubleheader involving the Wildcats' and Bears' men's and women's teams. O'Neill can run hot and cold, though: She went 1-for-12 from the field in her last game against Mississippi State. That performance was and is, in many ways, representative of Kentucky's season and its trajectory. O'Neill averages 13.3 points, 2.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.

Mitchell likes to run at least 10 players on the floor for at least eight to ten minutes, keeping everyone fresh in an attempt to wear down the opposition. In the frontcourt, 6-3 post Azia Bishop is the main reserve for Kentucky. Bishop averages 5.4 rebounds per game. She's helped out by 6-2 teammate Jelleah Sidney, who averages 3 boards per contest. In the backcourt, O'Neill is accompanied by Linnae Harper, Bemisha Pinkett, and Makayla Epps. Harper averages 6.5 points per game.

Keys to the Game

1) Get Jasmine Lister some set plays that work for her, something to put her in position to make shots and feel better about her game.
There's no use tiptoeing or tap dancing around this point: Lister has to be able to become a strong and efficient sidekick for Christina Foggie at the offensive end of the floor. A 3-of-15 shooting performance against Florida was just the latest in a series of discouraging outings for Lister, who is really the player who has to regain form in March if VU is going to do anything special. Getting Lister into the flow of this game at the offensive end will do wonders for the Dores. It's priority number one without a doubt.

2) Ball movement. Stagnant offenses get eaten alive by Kentucky's pressure. Vanderbilt has to move the ball crisply for 40 minutes. It's been a long time since this team has played a high-level game on offense. Let's see if VU can post 75 on the scoreboard; Kentucky might not keep pace, given the Wildcats' lack of consistent shooters in their own right.

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