Basketball Scouting Report: Kentucky

This past week was a clarifying week for the Vanderbilt men's basketball team. It was the kind of week which, in pro sports, would make an organization think ahead to the following season. Since this might be the only time Vanderbilt plays Kentucky in 2015, it's not premature to say that the Commodores need to play this game with an eye on 2016.


There’s no sense in trying to carry lofty aspirations when they aren’t going to be reached. After a week in which Vanderbilt lost at home to Georgia and at Mississippi State, any notions about threatening for an NCAA tournament at-large berth are just about over. Realistically, that’s hard if not impossible to deny. Vanderbilt didn’t do enough in the non-conference portion of its season to boost its profile, so it needed a dynamite SEC season in order to compensate. A home loss to Georgia and especially a road loss to Mississippi State have already made the SEC season far less than what the Commodores wanted. Tonight’s game at Kentucky really is a Hail Mary in terms of giving VU a final chance to create an NCAA-worthy at-large profile. Let’s not kid ourselves, though: After losing at Mississippi State, the notion of winning in Rupp Arena against the nation’s number one team is… well… we don’t even need to say it.

This brings up a very interesting point for coach Kevin Stallings and his staff: Just how do you approach tonight’s game, coming off the Mississippi State loss? Sure, there are non-negotiables and no-brainers such as demanding better attention to detail, especially on the glass and in terms of avoiding fouls on defense. Rebounding and free throw differentials killed VU against Mississippi State. It’s obvious that those areas need to be shored up in advance of tonight’s game in Lexington. Vanderbilt also needs players to help Damian Jones, a luminous talent who can’t do everything by himself, yet nearly rescued the team in Starkville on Saturday. In certain ways, it’s obvious what Vanderbilt has to do, but the choice before Stallings is a little more layered.

Given the odds that are stacked against Vanderbilt in this contest, how much does Stallings see this game as prize to be won versus a teaching tool to be used to develop this team for next season? It’s very difficult to shake the notion that the past week readjusted expectations for this season, making it a lot easier to focus on player development at the expense of a few extra wins here and there. It’s true that many of the Kentucky players VU is facing tonight will not be around next season – that’s how coach John Calipari rolls – but since this could be the Dores’ only game against Big Blue in 2015 (they would have to meet in the SEC Tournament in order to gain a rematch), Stallings needs to make sure that he doesn’t get cheated – or cheat his team – in these 40 minutes. These are important learning minutes for VU, since the bridge to a better team in 2016, a team that can use Jones as the centerpiece of an NCAA tournament contender, depends on being able to play an elite opponent with confidence and increased understanding. If Kentucky really does educate Vanderbilt tonight and helps these players realize how they can grow, this game – while perhaps being a 30-point loss – will be looked on as a valuable forward step for the program.

Would winning this game be great? Of course it would. The main thing for Vanderbilt to take away from this game is a precise idea – for every non-Jones player – of how improvement can be achieved day by day through the rest of the regular season and on into the 2015-2016 campaign. If the Dores secure that collective epiphany throughout their roster, they’ll appreciate this trip to the big barn in the bluegrass.

KENTUCKY AT-A-GLANCE

The Wildcats are back – they left for a brief while, but they’ve shored up their level of play over the past week. Kentucky did not shoot well against either Louisville or Texas A&M, and the Wildcats allowed Ole Miss to take them to overtime in Rupp. The Cats won all three of those games, but they didn’t look convincing in them. In the Louisville and A&M games, the Harrisons very nearly shot Kentucky into losses, performing poorly from both two-point range and three-point range (especially Aaron), but the Cardinals and Aggies just couldn’t hit shots. A&M was especially bad from the foul line, where a steady stream of misses gave Kentucky just enough of a margin to survive a couple of close shaves. Calipari’s team remained unbeaten, but it knew it had to play better. That’s exactly what it did against Missouri and, more recently, against Alabama on Saturday.

Kentucky’s win in Tuscaloosa was a clinic, especially on defense. The Wildcats committed only 13 fouls for the game, conceding just seven foul shots to Alabama. Kentucky limited the Tide to under 30-percent shooting from three-point range. The Cats limited Alabama to only 21 rebounds, only 13 at the defensive end. On offense, Kentucky hit 50 percent of its shots and nearly 50 percent of its threes. Kentucky hit 89 percent of its 18 foul shots. It committed only 10 turnovers. The Harrisons smartly got out of the way and took only six total threes and eight total shots. Not coincidentally, UK’s shooting numbers improved. Clean, efficient, and prudent – Kentucky is once again playing well after a two-week break from looking like the best team in the United States.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Willie Cauley-Stein –
Junior, 7-0, 240; 2014-15: 9.6 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game, 1.9 blocked shots per game

Kentucky’s split-unit system, with Calipari rolling in groups of three to five players at a time, means that while no one player carries this team, an unusually large number of players contribute to the Wildcats. Cauley-Stein is this team’s most experienced interior defender. He is a bothersome presence who will force Damian Jones to be at his very best. This is a challenge Jones should relish, and with Kentucky’s endless waves of big bodies, it’s not as though Jones will have a chance to relax when Cauley-Stein goes to the bench.

Forward – Karl-Anthony Towns – Freshman, 6-11, 250; 2014-15: 8.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.3 blocked shots per game

Towns is an even better shot blocker than Cauley-Stein, but as a freshman, he has so much more upside in terms of what he’ll likely be able to do in the coming years. A fundamental point to make about Kentucky’s defense – especially against Alabama – is that when a team with so much size isn’t fouling, you can tell how well coached it is. It is so easy for big men to want to jump in the air as soon as possible to swat shots. That tendency, though, can lead to fouls on pump fakes by offensive players. Against Alabama, Kentucky big men did not commit on fakes and stayed on the floor. Discipline on defense is a central component of a great team, and Kentucky has it in spades.

Forward – Trey Lyles – Freshman, 6-10, 235; 2014-15: 7.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg

Lyles is the man most responsible for keeping Kentucky unbeaten. If he hadn’t made two last-second free throws at Texas A&M, the Wildcats would have lost. Like most other players on this roster, Lyles is not an overwhelmingly dynamic scorer, but he makes simple plays and doesn’t overly complicate matters on court. He trusts his teammates to do their job, and that’s why UK has such a coordinated and hard-to-beat defense. Kentucky’s players have talent, yes, but they also trust each other… something that wasn’t in evidence through February of last season.

Guard – Aaron Harrison – Sophomore, 6-6, 212; 2014-15: 11.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.9 assists per game

This is one of two players Kentucky fans should be worried about. Harrison is not a great pure shooter. He hits under 32 percent of his threes. The more shots he takes, the more he denies shots to the low-post players on his team (although rebounding an offensive miss is often Kentucky’s best offense). If Stallings wants this game to be a teaching tool for his players, he could say that he doesn’t want to open up his playbook for next season. However, he could also give his team practice in running a zone so that he forces the Harrisons to shoot more.

Guard – Andrew Harrison – Sophomore, 6-6, 210; 2014-15: 7.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 4.1 apg

Andrew Harrison shoots less and passes more. He is Kentucky’s leading assist man. Accordingly, he gives more to this team than Aaron despite scoring almost four fewer points per game. Not giving Andrew Harrison a clean passing lane will help Vanderbilt a lot in this tilt.

Bench

This is one of the deepest benches in the country, and Calipari – who is no fool – appropriately uses it. With Alex Poythress out for the season with an injury, four players get the primary bench minutes for Kentucky: center Dakari Johnson, a big load to handle for any opposing big man; forward Marcus Lee, who came of age in the 2014 NCAA Tournament; and guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Johnson averages 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Lee averages 3.2 rebounds per game. Booker is the team’s second-leading scorer with 10.4 points per game. He hasn’t shot below 45.5 percent in his team’s last five games. He’s therefore one to watch. Ulis is an extremely talented guard who averages 3.7 assists and is the main facilitator of the offense when Andrew Harrison isn’t on the floor.

Keys to the Game

1) Learn and grow.
Winning would be great, but Vanderbilt’s players have to make a conscious attempt to say as they take the court tonight, “I want to learn as much as possible about how to become a better basketball player in this game. I’m not going to focus on results so much as the process. This is where our run to the 2016 NCAAs truly begins, and I’m going to invest everything I have in this game… not resting my hopes on an outcome, but on gaining an understanding of how to play for coach Stallings, myself, and my teammates.”

2) Make Kentucky work for everything. The one thing a huge underdog wants to do against a heavy favorite is only this: Don’t make it easy. Force Kentucky to earn everything it gets. Don’t give away possessions with little resistance. Make the Wildcats play defense for all 35 seconds on the shot clock. Force every Wildcat player to put forth maximum effort to secure every loose ball and make every incremental gain. Being tough and disciplined is what will enable Vanderbilt to grow in the coming year, enabling this game to have meaning well beyond the confines of the 2015 SEC season.

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