Commodores need a win vs. Wildcats... badly

It's always one of the biggest home games of the year when Kentucky visits, and this year ESPN2 will be in town to televise Saturday's game nationally. The Commodores (13-4, 2-4 SEC) and No. 5 Wildcats (14-2, 4-1) tip off at 11:00 a.m. CT at Memorial Gymnasium (ESPN2, 650 WSM-AM). UK won the previous meeting in Lexington, 75-63. VeeMan previews the rematch and offers a prediction.

Vanderbilt lost its first home game of the year Wednesday when it fell to No. 25 South Carolina, 57-55, and the Commodores fell to a precarious 2-4 in conference play. It was an extremely close game all the way, and the first one this season not decided until the final seconds. Matt Freije led the Commodores with 26 points and 11 rebounds, and Scott Hundley followed with 12 points and 6 rebounds. Unfortunately all the other team members combined could score only a total of 17 points.

Kentucky won its first game against Vanderbilt 75-63 in Lexington. The Wildcats now have a conference record of 4-1, with the only loss coming to Georgia at Rupp Arena, 65-57. Since playing Vanderbilt, UK has come up with two last-second road victories over Mississippi State (67-66) and Tennessee (69-68), and defeated Ole Miss at home, 71-61. The Cats also defeated Notre Dame 71-63 in a non-conference road appearance.

This Kentucky team, which has an overall record of 14-2, has been far from overwhelming, but somehow they almost always seem to edge out their opponents. They are only fifth in the conference in scoring (72.6 ppg) and defense (62.4 ppg yielded). They are third in shooting percentage from the field, fifth in free throw percentage, and only eighth in rebounding margin. Perhaps the most revealing statistic is their third-place standing in field goal defense. Once again every point made against the Cats is hard-earned.

The starters continue to be 6-8 senior Erik Daniels, 6-6 junior Chuck Hayes, 6-5 sophomore Kelenna Azubuike, 6-3 senior Gerald Fitch, and 6-1 senior Cliff Hawkins. Fitch continues to lead the team in scoring (16.3 ppg) and 3-pointers made (by a great margin). Daniels (15.4 ppg) had a career high of 24 points in the Mississippi game on Wednesday. Hayes is easily the top rebounder (average of 8.8 caroms) and is third in scoring (11.9 ppg). Azubuike (9.9 ppg, pictured above) and Hawkins (9.1 ppg) contribute significantly to the scoring.

Lack of depth continues to be the Wildcats' Achilles heel. However 6-5 senior Antoine Barbour (3.2 ppg; photo, right, by John Sommers II for Reuters) finally awakened in the Ole Miss game and scored 12 points on a 4-of-6 shooting performance from the field. 6-9 sophomore Bernard Cote, 7-1 Lukasz Obrzut, 6-5 junior Josh Carrier, and 5-9 sophomore Brandon Stockton appear in most of the games and play limited minutes. Carrier has been playing more of late and scored six points against Notre Dame. Others who may see action are 7-3 Shagari Alleyne, 6-2 Ravi Moss, 6-7 Sheray Thomas, and 6-7 Bobby Perry, all freshmen except sophomore Moss.

Hawkins is the top defensive player on the outside, one of the best in NCAA Division I, and Hayes and Daniels are very effective defenders inside. Azubuike is generally regarded as the weakest link in the defense, although his quickness and leaping ability allow him to make the occasional spectacular play.

Vanderbilt enjoys a depth advantage over Kentucky (although the depth will be somewhat reduced by the absence of Corey Smith, suspended for this game because of a fracas with Renaldo Balkman in the South Carolina game). Obrzut and Alleyne aren't on the court a lot, so the Commodores will have superior height, especially when David Przybyszewski or Ted Skuchas is in the game. Vanderbilt's team defense has been consistently good all year.

The Wildcats are more vulnerable than they were last year because they struggle to score, and a good shooting performance by the Commodores might well bring victory. Unfortunately this is exactly what the Dores did not have in the South Carolina game (35% from the field and 64% from the free throw line) or in the Arkansas game (38% from the field and 59% from the free throw line).

Kentucky is fairly similar to South Carolina in its style of play, so expect another close, tough game, although perhaps not as low-scoring as the South Carolina loss. The Wildcats never seem bothered by hostile crowds, and have not lost a road game yet this year. Kentucky has to be favored and is predicted here to win by three to six points.

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