What a difference one game can make in the outlook of teams, coaches, and fans! After four consecutive losses, and near total collapse of the offensive game, it looked as though the season was winding down to a dismal conclusion for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Now, following the 67-62 road win over Tennessee on Saturday, there is plenty of hope for the regular season to finish on a high note and to be followed by some success in the SEC and NIT tournaments.
The Commodores didn't shoot the lights out against Tennessee (42% from the field) and were outrebounded 38-33, but they hit some three-pointers (nine of twenty-four) and held down the turnovers (fifteen). More significantly, they played some of their best defense of the year. That is no surprise. It was predictable that the defense would lead the way out of the slump. After all, during the four-game losing streak, and before, the opposition hadn't exactly been scoring tons of points.
The Kentucky Wildcats come into this game with a 19-7 overall record, and 9-5 in conference play. They are tied with Florida and Georgia in first place in the Eastern Division of the SEC. Even though they don't seem to be in the same class with better Kentucky teams of recent years, they are still tough and they have the Kentucky mystique going for them. In their two most recent games, they won at home over Tennessee (64-61) and Arkansas (71-58).
The first Vanderbilt-Kentucky game, on February 13, produced a 67-59 win for Kentucky in Lexington. The Commodores trailed nearly throughout, but stayed in the game almost to the very end. Had they played with more confidence, they might have won.
The Wildcats expected to have a sixteen-player roster for this season, including three walk-ons (one of them a frequent starter). However, Jason Parker went down with a torn ACL before the season began and later Marvin Stone left the team. Freshman point guard Adam Chiles has been out with an injury. Most recently, wing players Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels were suspended for using false ID and neither will be back in action Wednesday if Coach Tubby Smith's bite is equivalent to his bark. So the Wildcats are reduced to eleven players, three of whom play very little.
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Senior forward Tayshaun Prince (6'9") is still the leading scorer (16.9 ppg) and rebounder (averaging 6.3). He is also a tough defender and is, without a doubt, their best player. Prince takes a lot of three-pointers (153 to date), but makes only a third of them. But on a given night, he can go on a tear and shoot the opposition out of the game.
6'5" junior Keith Bogans continues to struggle. His scoring average has declined to 11.3 ppg. But with Fitch and Daniels suspended, he will start and play a lot of minutes and is dangerous.
6'11" junior center Jules Camara has been coming on strong in recent games. His stats are still not impressive (5.6 ppg, 3.6 rebounds), but he leads the team in blocked shots and has been scoring more.
6'7" freshman Chuck Hayes has moved into the starting lineup. His stats are 5.4 ppg and 4.1 rebounds, and he is a steady inside player. He will likely start for the Wildcats for the next three years.
At point guard, 6'1" sophomore Gerald Hawkins is a weak outside shooter and his assist to turnover ratio is rather shaky. He is a strong defender. 6'2" senior J.P. Blevins, who earlier missed about a dozen games with an injury, is now a competent backup to Hawkins.
6'9" junior Marquis Estill comes off the bench and scores 9.5 ppg and grabs 4.2 rebounds. He gives the Wildcats a third shotblocker and tall inside defender. 6'3" freshman Rashaad Carruth is going to classes again and will play; he is a dangerous outside shooter, but defends indifferently.
The other team members are 6'5" freshman Josh Carrier, 6'6" sophomore Cory Sears, and 6'4" sophomore Matt Heissnebuttel.
Vanderbilt hasn't defeated Kentucky in Nashville since January 13, 1993. On that occasion the Commodores won 101-86 and all five starter scored in double digits, led by Billy McCaffrey's 22 points. Some of the games since then have been close. Two years ago the Cats won 81-73 in overtime and last year they won 79-74.
A Vanderbilt victory in this game is well within reach if the sputtering offense is functioning. It is time for the Dores to break out in a real rash of three-pointers and if that happens, Coach Kevin Stallings could have his first victory over the Commodores's worst nemesis, the Kentucky Wildcats.