Women's Hoops Scouting Report: Kentucky

The Vanderbilt Commodores were sinking… again. A third straight loss was staring this team in the face. Ole Miss had limited VU to 28 points in just over 28 minutes. Everything looked bleak… and then everything changed. Can VU turn a comeback into a turning point for its season?


Let’s not insist that the script is suddenly different for Vanderbilt women’s basketball – at least in a profoundly transformative sense. Yes, a win is different from a loss, but in terms of the larger trajectory of the winter of 2015, Vanderbilt hasn’t authored the kind of upset that would change everything… an upset akin to, say… beating Kentucky on Sunday in Memorial Gym. THAT would truly alter the scope of possibility for this team and put those valued terms – “NCAA tournament” – back into play. Until then, though, nothing has changed at a level this team needs.

That said, what happened on Thursday against Ole Miss at least makes this game against Kentucky feel more attainable, more significant, more imbued with hope.

It was rather striking that Vanderbilt’s offense had basically been held to a point per minute by Ole Miss when the under-12 media timeout arrived on Thursday. The sight was all too familiar to coach Melanie Balcomb, who has received a commendable defensive performance from her team this season but has failed to unlock the Dores’ offensive capabilities, with that still-conspicuous exception of the Mississippi State masterclass in Memorial Gym. Yet, when all hope seemed lost and VU looked at that 42-28 deficit on the scoreboard, the Commodores responded. Their output in the first 28:30 was eclipsed in the final 11:30 by two points. That final 30-12 surge created a thrilling 58-54 win and the chance to dare to dream a little bit. If the Dores can put together a complete performance against Kentucky, one of three top-10 RPI teams they’ll face in the coming weeks, they can realistically entertain notions of Madness when they make their way to the SEC tournament. They’d have a chance to play their way into the field.

Can those glorious 11 minutes and 30 seconds translate into 40 flowing minutes of offensive precision against Kentucky? Can Vanderbilt take the positive energy of a rousing comeback and carry that confidence through Sunday’s game? It’s important to note that there’s no midweek game next week. Vanderbilt has arrived at a moment when players can play extended minutes if they need to. They’ll be able to rest during the course of the week. If ever there was a spill-the-tank moment in this season, Sunday’s clash with Kentucky is it.

The questions have been asked. We’ll see how Vanderbilt answers them.

KENTUCKY AT-A-GLANCE

The Wildcats, coached by Matthew Mitchell, intend to beat you in one way more than any other. Kentucky’s statistical profile clearly reveals how this team tries to break the will of its opponents.

The Wildcats are ninth in the SEC in field goal percentage, 10th in two-point percentage, and 11th in three-point percentage. They’re 10th in free throw shooting percentage. They’re just not a good shooting team. They commit 17 turnovers per game. They come up with only 11.7 assists per game, 12th in the SEC. In terms of field goal percentage defense: last in the SEC, at 41.1 percent shooting allowed. Two-point percentage: 44.9 percent, 12th in the conference. Rebounding percentage: 52.1 percent, which is 11th in the SEC. Fouls per game? Kentucky fouls a lot – 21.3 times per game, next to last in the SEC.

How is this a top-10 RPI team, one that has a great chance to get back to the Elite Eight, which Mitchell has reached multiple times in his successful (but not yet Final Four) tenure in Lexington?

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.

The Wildcats relentlessly attack on defense. They rely on their extended pressure to rattle and then ultimately break their opponents. Kentucky forces 22.8 turnovers per game, tops in the SEC and third-best in a nation of roughly 350 Division I programs. It only makes sense that if you lack pure shooters, stealing the ball and dropping in an easy, uncontested layup at the other end of the floor is the best way to reliably put the ball in the basket. That’s what Kentucky does. Sure, the assist total on this team is low, but when a player makes a steal and jogs down the court for a layup, who needs assists? Overrated, right? Kentucky manages to make its defense a source of its offense.

The Wildcats have lost five times this season, three times to teams in the top 10 of the RPI. They lost at LSU because they committed 26 turnovers and were able to force “only” 16 from the Bayou Bengals. LSU, though, has been tough in SEC play, so that loss on the road in Baton Rouge is understandable. This team has suffered only one true “odd duck” of a loss, to Illinois back in late November during a Thanksgiving tournament. This is a consistent team because it’s a relentless team. Beating Kentucky is so much about patience with the ball and floor spacing, choosing the right times to perform certain kinds of actions.

For instance: It can be helpful to set a screen to enable a ballhandler to gain some breathing room in the face of defensive pressure. However, the spacing in which the screen is set has to be agreeable. If a screen brings another defender to the area where the ballhandler is trying to create space, the screen is counterproductive. Those are the kinds of details VU must tend to.

Kentucky wants to create as many possessions as possible to offset its poor shooting. Vanderbilt has to know when to attack and get an easy deuce, and when to reset the offense and force Kentucky to guard for 30 full seconds. The Dores need to pull off that balancing act, all while tending to some basic principles such as not getting pinned along sidelines, baselines, or the halfcourt line, giving Kentucky an added defender which will lead to steals and points surrendered off turnovers. This is what it’s like to play a team built on defensive pressure. The source of hope for Vanderbilt is that if it doesn’t turn the ball over, its chances of winning skyrocket.

Kentucky simply makes the bet that you won’t be able to protect the ball very consistently against its pressure. It’s a bet the Wildcats win far more often than they lose.

Starting Lineup

Center – Alyssa Rice – Freshman, 6-3; 2014-15: 2.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg

Just a freshman, Rice doesn’t have to own a polished set of low-post moves. As you’ll see below, Kentucky doesn’t need its post players to be dynamic scorers:

Forward/Center – Jelleah Sidney –
Senior, 6-2; 2014-15: 1.8 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game

As you would expect with a team which employs the style Kentucky brings to each game, the Wildcats are not reliant upon their starting five. They depend upon eight to nine players all contributing and, in particular, wearing down the opposition with their pressure. No Kentucky player received more than 33 minutes last Sunday against Georgia, and only one received more than 30 minutes. Mitchell makes use of TV timeouts and other breaks to keep a nine-player rotation fresh. This is how an attacking defense can be sustained through games and, of course, seasons. Sidney’s low statistical production, therefore, is not of paramount concern. Effective interior defense in a 20-minute run will make Sidney a valuable part of Kentucky’s efforts on each and every gameday. The same is quite true for Rice, whose statistical footprint is similarly small. Numbers aren’t really Mitchell’s main concern, nor should they be.

Guard – Bria Goss – Senior, 5-10; 2014-15: 8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 assists per game

Goss is one of the two veterans in the Kentucky backcourt. She and teammate Jennifer O’Neill anchor this squad. It’s conceptually easy to run around the court and play with great energy, fueling UK’s chaotic defense and hounding opponents all the while. However, as any coach could tell you, what looks chaotic on the surface has an intent behind it. Players have to know what they’re doing when they extend themselves in the process of applying defensive pressure. Goss and O’Neill apply what Mitchell teaches, but they’re also hugely important players because they’re on-court coaches for the younger guards on the Wildcats’ roster.

Guard – Linnae Harper – Sophomore, 5-8; 2014-15: 11.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.5 apg

This is one of the younger guards Goss and O’Neill are mentoring. They’re clearly doing a good job. Harper is a marvel. At 5-8, she is the best rebounder on the team by 1.5 boards per game over the next-best rebounder (Azia Bishop, who averages 5.6 boards per game at 6-3 in the low post. Others look to score more on this team, but Harper’s nose for the ball is what embodies the Wildcats at their very best.

Guard – Makayla Epps – Sophomore, 5-10; 2014-15: 13.8 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg

A mention of Epps is incomplete without noting one of the key losses Kentucky has suffered this season. A few weeks ago, guard Janee Thompson suffered a broken leg and was knocked out for the rest of the season. Thompson averaged 3.1 assists, the best on the team. Epps is now left to be the main distributor of the ball for UK’s offense. Can Vanderbilt take advantage of Kentucky’s diminished depth in the backcourt as a result of Thompson’s unfortunate injury?

Bench

You’ve already been introduced to Azia Bishop and Jennifer O’Neill. Though she does come off the bench, O’Neill is UK’s leading scorer with 15 points per game. Other bench contributors are forwards Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Alexis Jennings. Goodin-Rogers averages 5 points and 3.9 boards per game, Jennings 8.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per contest.

Keys to the Game

1) Get to spots first.
This is an all-inclusive way of saying, “Beat Kentucky to the spot not just on boards, but in terms of stopping dribble penetration.” Getting to spots first applies to so many facets of this game. Hustling and being aware enough to know where to be on each play will carry VU through this game if implemented effectively.

2) Value the ball. We’ve established this above: Attack when a layup is there. Reset the offense when it’s not. Set screens in the right places at the right times. Don’t get pinned along sidelines or other boundaries. If VU can commit no more than 12 turnovers, let’s see how much offense Kentucky can generate on its own. Vanderbilt will give itself a great chance to win if it can limit that turnover count to no more than 12.

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