The Kentucky Wildcats come into this game with a 10-2 record after losing Sunday in Lexington to the Kansas Jayhawks 65-59. It was the first time ever for Kansas to win at Kentucky. This was just the fifth major game of the season for th Wildcats, the others resulting in a 91-78 loss at North Carolina, a 60-58 win at Louisville, a 73-58 home victory over struggling Indiana, and a tough 79-75 victory over South Carolina at home in the conference opener. The other wins have been over an assortment of cupcakes such as Campbell, Coppin State, William and Mary, and Morehead. In the rankings released Monday, Kentucky was No. 9 in the AP poll and No. 10 in the ESPN/USA Today.
Head Coach Tubby Smith (right) is in his eighth year at Kentucky, where he has compiled a composite record of 201-54, including a national championship in 1998. Before coming to Kentucky he was an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth (1979-86), an assistant at South Carolina (1986-89), an assistant at Kentucky (1989-91), head coach at Tulsa for four seasons (1991-95), and head coach at Georgia for two seasons (1995-97). Except for his first two seasons at Tulsa, as a head coach he has had his team in the NCAA every year. The 53-year old Smith is renowned for the menacing glare that he fixes on his players when something goes wrong, and the tough defense that his teams play.
The leading scorer for the Wildcats, and the player that Vanderbilt is most likely to find a difficult matchup problem, is 6-5 junior Kelenna Azubuike. The 220-pounder scores 14.8 ppg and is second in rebounding with 4.8 per game. He is not shooting with particularly good percentages (36.8% of his three-point attempts and 44.7% overall), but he is quick and a tremendous leaper who may be a bit too nimble for Corey Smith and a bit too big for Jason Holwerda. On the other hand, Azubuike is not renowned for his defensive prowess.
6-6 senior Chuck Hayes (240 lbs, left) is the most experienced player, having seen much action in all of his previous three seasons. He is scoring 11.6 ppg and easily leads the team in rebounding (9.7 per game). Hayes is strictly a close-in player, a capable passer and ballhandler in tight, and solid free-throw maker (77.1%) who gets to the line often. Also, he is the best defender on the squad.
6-1 junior Patrick Sparks (11.4 ppg) starts at the shooting guard position and often moves over to play the point. He transferred in from Western Kentucky where he saw a great deal of action for two seasons. His three-point shooting (32.4%) isn't quite up to expectations, but he easily leads the team in assists (5.2 per game). Sparks is the man that the team turns to in tough situations and his heroics pulled the Louisville game out of the fire.
6-1 freshman Rajon Rondo (6.8 ppg) starts at point guard. He has been more of a driver than a three-point threat and is second in assists (2.6 per game). He is a future star but will need some time to develop to full potential.
6-10 freshman Randolph Morris (9.6 ppg) is the low post starter, and a likely future All-American. However, he isn't there yet. He is playing about 20 minutes per game and averaging just 4.2 rebounds. He isn't likely to be comfortable in trying to guard Dawid Przybyszewski out on the court.
Smith uses a lot of players. 7-3 sophomore Shagari Alleyne (5.0 ppg) has been the most pleasant surprise after seeing little action as a freshman. He is certainly the best shot-blocker on the team (2.4 per game) and, with his long arms, resembles a giant spider who might get a hand on any shot or pass near the basket. 6-6 sophomore Bobby Perry (3.2 ppg) is an outside threat. 6-2 junior Ravi Moss (3.2 ppg) has some experience and has been coming up big in late game situations with his outside shot (41.2% on threes).
6-4 freshman Joe Crawford (3.8 ppg) was a McDonald's All-American (as were Rondo and Morris), but he hasn't shot very well to date and seems not to have reached Smith's standards as a defender. (Ed. note: Crawford asked for a release from the team earlier this week.) 6-1 freshman Rumel Bradley (3.6 ppg) is very active and likely to be a factor as the season progresses.
6-4 senior Josh Carrier, 5-9 junior Brandon Stockton, 7-0 sophomore Lukasz Obrzut, and 6-7 sophomore Sheray Thomas all may play a little against Vanderbilt. None of them have accomplished much to date, and Thomas has missed several games.
Could this be the year that Vanderbilt finally wins in Lexington? Kansas just did it and the Jayhawks had never won there. Vanderbilt won several games at Kentucky's old Memorial Gymnasium in the Skinner era, but not since 1974, and never at Rupp Arena, have the Commodores been able to beat the Cats in their own lair.
Yes, this could be the year and it will be if the Dores play close to the form that they displayed against Alabama and Tennessee. Kentucky will be tough, of course, but the Wildcats certainly don't appear to be overwhelming. Their rebounding hasn't been strong against better opponents and the outside shooting isn't great. They haven't defended the three well and in general the defense hasn't been up to Smith's standard. The Commodores have a lot of tough individuals who won't be overawed by the immense hostile audience before which they will be playing, and who are likely to stay focused on the job to be done. The prediction is for this to be the first close game of the year for Vanderbilt, but a win by three to seven points.
Editors Note: Freshman Joe Crawford has left the Kentucky team.