Kentucky comes into Saturday's game with a 9-1 record and a No. 5 ranking in the ESPN/Coaches poll (No. 7 in AP). At home Tubby Smith's Wildcats have defeated Winthrop (65-44), Tennessee Tech (108-81), Eastern Kentucky (101-72), Austin Peay (61-53), and North Carolina (61-56). On the road Kentucky owns wins over Marshall (89-76) in Cincinnati, UCLA (52-50), Michigan State (79-74), and Indiana (80-41). Their only loss came at Rupp Arena to arch-rival Louisville (65-56).
The Wildcats have 16 players on the roster, three of whom (6-2 sophomores Ravi Moss and Preston LeMaster, and 6-4 senior Matt Heissenbuetel) are walk-ons. Moss scored four points and grabbed three rebounds in 11 minutes of action against North Carolina, and gave the team a definite lift.
The starting guards are both seniors, 6-1 Cliff Hawkins at the point, and 6-3 Gerald Fitch, the team's high scorer. Hawkins is the team's best defender, and one of the best in the country, a real problem for opposing point guards. He plays over 30 minutes per game and averages 10.6 ppg, six assists, and hits over 80% of his free throws and 37.5% of his threes. He has improved his shooting greatly and has become a complete player.
Fitch (17.8 ppg, right, photo by Rebecca Cook for Reuters) is a 39.7% 3-point shooter and can't be left unguarded for a second. He has always been a remarkably good rebounding guard and snares 3.6 caroms per game. Like Hawkins, he is an exceptional defender. At the end of the season he is almost certain to be an All-SEC choice if he continues his excellent work.
On the other wing is shooting forward Kelenna Azubuike, a 6-5 sophomore who logs about 26 minutes per game. He scores 9.8 ppg and can put up points in bunches, as indicated by his 57.7% 3-point shooting average. He is the weakest defender among the starters, but may have the most athletic ability of any of the Wildcat players and grabs 4.4 rebounds per game.
The power forward is 6-6 junior Chuck Hayes, a 245-pound workhorse and an exceptional team player. His 9.1 rebounds are tops for the Wildcats, and he has improved his shooting (51.7% from the field and 80% from the free-throw line) to the point that he is the third leading scorer (11.7 ppg). He plays over 30 minutes per game.
The center is 6-8 senior Erik Daniels, who came to Kentucky without a lot of fanfare but has turned out to be a solid player. The team's second-leading scorer (14.8 ppg), Daniels is not an outstanding shooter but works to get short shots near the basket that he can make, and is hitting at the rate of 54.5%. Daniels is an excellent passer (second on the team in assists) and the second leading rebounder (7.4 per game).
The reserve who sees the most action is 6-5 swingman Antwain Barbour (15 minutes per game, 3.1 ppg). He has not lived up to the high expectations that came with him from junior college, but is still a valuable reserve. 5-9 sophomore guard Brandon Stockton (2.1 ppg) is quick and a good shooter.
There are two 7-2 freshman big men, Lukasz Obrzut (1.3 ppg) and Shagari Alleyne (1.6 ppg). Obrzut, like David Przybyszewski is from Poland, and has played in every game, seeing a little more action than Alleyne. Neither has been much of a factor to date.
There are four more scholarship players, none of whom has contributed much. They are 6-5 junior Josh Carrier, 6-9 sophomore Bernard Cote, and two 6-7 freshmen, Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas. Cote sees the most action, about six minutes in the nine games in which he has appeared. Carrier came to Kentucky with a big reputation as a shooter, but hasn't produced.
It has been almost 30 years since Vanderbilt won in Lexington (the last victory came on Jan. 28, 1974, 82-65). The Commodores have never won in Rupp Arena and seem to face an enormous psychological barrier on that court. Lest we forget-- as if any of us could-- Kentucky beat Vandy last year at Rupp by the astonishing score of 106-44.
This year Vanderbilt does seem to have a real chance to beat the Rupp Arena jinx if it plays the whole game as well as it played the first half of the Auburn game. Rarely do basketball teams go unbeaten, and this is probably the toughest assignment on Vanderbilt's schedule, as it traditionally is. Considering the outstanding team defense the Wildcats play, and the fact that UK will have had a full week off to prepare, the prediction is a six- to ten-point win for Kentucky.