Scouting Report: Wildcats converge on Nashville

The up and down Vanderbilt Commodores, 13-8 (4-4 SEC), host the SEC East leading Kentucky Wildcats, 16-2 (7-0 SEC). VeeMan, VandyMania's college hoops expert gives us a scouting report on the Wildcats and predicts the game winner.<P> <i>Tipoff: 2 p.m. CT<br> Radio: 104.5 The Zone<br> Television: JP Sports</i>

The Vanderbilt Commodores have finally won a close game. They held on to defeat Tennessee 67-62 on Wednesday. It wasn't one of their better offensive efforts, but good defense and a 30-point performance by freshman point guard Alex Gordon enabled them to pull it out. Gordon was only the fourth Commodore freshman to score 30 points in a game, the others being Charles Davis, Mike Rhodes, and Phil Cox. Corey Smith added 19 points, as he and Gordon accounted for 49 of the team's 67 points. Tennessee was without two of its three big men, Brandon Crump and Jemere Hendrix.

Meanwhile the Kentucky Wildcats were enjoying a mid-week off, allowing them to prepare more intensively for the Vanderbilt game. The Wildcats do not appear to have one of their better teams, yet they come into this game with an overall record of 16-2, and 7-0 in conference games. Their only losses are to two powers, on the road to North Carolina (91-78) and at home to Kansas (65-59). In conference play, they have won at home from South Carolina (79-75), Vanderbilt (69-54), and LSU (89-58), and on the road from Georgia (76-55), Mississippi (53-50), Arkansas (68-67), and Tennessee (84-62).

Kentucky is the best defensive team in the conference. They have allowed the fewest points, rank first in scoring margin and turnover margin, second in steals and blocked shots, and third in defense against three-point shots. They are less impressive in the offensive categories, but rank second in assists and first in assist/turnover ratio. In the shooting categories, they are only eighth in field goal percentage and free throw shooting, and ninth in three-point shooting percentage. The Wildcats rank fourth in rebounding margin.

6-5 junior Kelenna Azubuike continues to lead the Cats in scoring (14.3 ppg) and is second in rebounds (4.8 per game). He has been Coach Tubby Smith's most consistent scorer this season. However, 6-6 senior Chuck Hayes (10.7 ppg, 8.7 rebounds per game) always finds ways to contribute. Hayes is having to wear a plastic protective mask since suffering a broken nose in the Tennessee game (similar to the one that Lawruence Roberts of Mississippi State wore early in the season). His presence is crucial because he is the team's best defender and rebounder and most experienced player.

6-1 junior Patrick Sparks is often at his best in close, pressure-packed situations. He is scoring 11.5 ppg, leads the team in assists (4.9 per game), maintains an excellent assist-turnover ratio, and has pulled his three-point shooting up to 36.2%.

Point guard Rajon Rondo, a 6-1 freshman point guard (8.2 ppg), hurt Vanderbilt greatly in the game between the two teams played earlier. The Commodores could not stop his drives to the basket and he led Kentucky in scoring with 18 points. His three-point shooting has been mediocre (29.4%) and he has not been as effective as Sparks as a playmaker.

6-11 freshman Randolph Morris (8.4 ppg, 3.8 rebounds) starts, but has not been the instant star that many expected him to be. Along with reserve center Shagari Alleyne, he provides height and good shot-blocking. Alleyne, a 7-4 sophomore, has come on to score 4.5 ppg and leads the teams in shots blocked (2.1 per game in limited playing time).

The Cats continue to put a lot of other players on the court in each game. In order of minutes played per game, they are 6-4 freshman Joe Crawford (3.9 ppg), 6-1 freshman Ramel Bradley (4.5 ppg), 6-6 sophomore Bobby Perry (3.9 ppg), 6-2 junior Ravi Moss (2.8 ppg), 6-4 senior Josh Carrier (1.0 ppg), 6-7 sophomore Sheray Thomas (1.6 ppg), 7-0 sophomore Lukasz Obrzut (0.6 ppg), and 5-9 junior Brandon Stockton (1.1 ppg). Actually, Crawford hasn't been playing much since he quit the team and then changed his mind and returned. Bradley, who is extremely quick and a slasher, is getting increased minutes. Perry's playing time has also increased as the season has progressed.

Kentucky's close calls at Mississippi and Arkansas indicate that the Wildcats can be beaten by conference teams on the road. If the Commodores play at their best (as against Tennessee in Knoxville and Alabama in Nashville), they will win. However, Mario Moore has continued in his deep and inexplicable slump and most of the other Commodore players have been in and out of form. A Vanderbilt win is a strong possibility but, on the basis of the strength and consistency of the Cats' defense they are picked here to win by three to nine points.

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