Some Kentucky fans want Tubby Smith fired. Some Vanderbilt fans would point out that the eighth circle of Hell, which the poet Dante reserved for those guilty of fraud and deception, doesn't actually have any fire.
Coaches Smith and Stallings, however, are not painting Morris' return as the game-deciding issue. One Wildcat that even Vanderbilt's head coach says could steal the show is Rajon Rondo. Rondo averages 32 minutes a game – 9 more than anyone else on the team. Without his efforts, many think that Kentucky would have already given up on this season. His improvement from freshman year has been tremendous – he has gained 5.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game, while also improving his assist/turnover ratio, free throw shooting, and points per shot. Vanderbilt has been victimized by some quick perimeter players already this season – Oregon's Aaron Brooks and Malik Hairston, Cincinnati's Devon Downey, and Georgia Tech's Anthony Morrow each put up big nights against the Commodores. If Rondo is able to do even more than he has typically done this season, it could be a long night for the Commodores. The good news for the ‘Dores is that Rondo lacks a consistent three-point shot. He is a 30.5% career three point shooter, having made only 19 threes in his 47 game career at UK.
Kentucky features two other sophomore guards who are second and third in scoring. Joe Crawford, at 6'4" and 210 pounds, is seen by many as the second best Wildcat player. Not only does he rank second on the team with 9.3 points, he is third (behind Rondo and Rekalin Sims) in rebounding with 4.4 boards per game. Crawford recently saved the Wildcats from a potentially embarrassing loss to Ohio. While Kentucky trailed for most of the game, Crawford's 4-of-5 three point shooting and 14 first half points kept them in the game.
Despite Crawford's impressive performance, Kentucky still trailed with only a few minutes remaining. Ramel Bradley, the third of Kentucky's sophomore guards, banked in a 3-pointer which ignited a scoring flurry by the Wildcats to close out the game with a win. Bradley did not seem to care that his critical shot collected no style points: "We were playing in Bank Arena, I guess, so I knew I had to bank one home."
Bradley is often overshadowed by Rondo and starting shooting guard Patrick Sparks. Known as "the Hunchback of Rupp Arena," Sparks is a classic story of a junior college basketball standout who proved himself worthy to play at the major conference school of his dreams. With a reputation as a clutch shooter, the senior has disappointed many Kentucky faithful this season with lower averages and inconsistency. With a three point shooting percentage of only 36% and a two-point shooting percentage of only about 40%, Sparks is statistically performing almost as well as last season. However, critics of Sparks note that his defense and ball distribution are measurably worse than they were last season. Ravi Moss, an experienced non-scholorship player, averages nearly 20 minutes per game as a backup for Sparks and the other guards, contributing significantly in scoring and defense.
In the post, Wildcat fans have been heavily disappointed in the accomplishments of their trio of 7-foot tall players. Shagari Alleyne, Lukasz Obrzut, and Jared Carter have combined for 26.4 minutes, 6.9 points, and 5.6 rebounds per game. No, that is not a type – Rajon Rondo is currently outrebounding all three players combined. The real post production for the Wildcats has come from three junior forwards: Rekalin Sims, Bobby Perry, and Sheray Thomas.
Sims is an oddity in that the quality of his performance seems to have little or no effect on whether Kentucky wins a game. His career highs in points (22) and rebounds (7) came in a Wildcat loss to Iowa. Kentucky's best game of the season, a 12-point drubbing of Louisville, came without any meaningful contributions from Sims – 8 minutes, 1 point, and 3 rebounds (all defensive).
Bobby Perry is a versatile swing-man at 6'6", and has experience at the 2-guard spot and both forward positions. Perry was offered scholarships by Stanford, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest coming out of high school, and this is by far his best season since choosing Kentucky. His 6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game are nothing to write your mom about, but Kentucky should not complain, as they can use all the depth they can get in the post. Throughout his career, Perry has been a dangerous rebounder at the offensive end – Vanderbilt needs to put a body on Perry after every Kentucky shot.
Finally, Sheray Thomas, a 6'7" Canadian, has been a very aggressive physical presence for the Wildcats. After playing only 7.3 minutes per game last season, he has responded well to playing nearly three times as much this season, averaging 5 points and 4 rebounds a game. Thomas is not a shot-blocking threat, but he is still somewhat prone to foul trouble.
As has often been repeated in recent weeks, the Commodores have never won in Rupp Arena. Even though Kentucky is "down" and Vandy is "up" this season, it will take a heroic performance by the ‘Dores to overcome the Wildcats' very significant home court edge. But what exactly will the Commodores need to accomplish in order to win this game?
(1) Gain an early edge in confidence. At some level, Kentucky's players are waiting to see if Morris' return can turn the tide in their favor this season, after early disappointments. The best thing that can happen for Kentucky would be a early scoring run (including points and/or rebounds by Morris), regaining confidence while Vanderbilt fans start thinking "here we go again". Vanderbilt will try to take their offense straight at Morris to create the opportunity for defensive fouls. Good perimeter defense by the Commodores will also be critical to avoid an early Kentucky run.
(2) Stop Rajon Rondo. Rondo is probably the best player that Vanderbilt has faced this season, but he is slightly different than the other players the Commodores have been unable to defend in that he lacks a good outside shot. Coach Stallings commented after the Auburn game on Mario Moore and Alex Gordon's improved defense, but don't be surprised if Derrick Byars is assigned to defend Rondo. Byars' size advantage and quickness could hold Rondo below his averages in points and rebounding, which would greatly hinder Kentucky's game plan.
(3) Play like road warriors – Vanderbilt has struggled on the road in the past, while thriving in the energetic and friendly confines of Memorial. However, this year the team is 2-1 after playing three tough teams (Georgetown, Dayton, and Georgia Tech) on the road. Rupp Arena is a more hostile environment than the ‘Dores have yet faced this year, but all but one Commodore player (Davis Nwankwo) has played in Rupp at least once before. If the Commodores are rattled or awed by the Rupp environment, the game is over.
(4) Big games from Shan Foster and Derrick Byars are both a must. Kentucky is well known for its perimeter defense, but the Commodores will have a size advantage at the wing positions. Both players must hit big shots while disrupting Kentucky's perimeter shooters. Kentucky cannot take this game over from the post – if Vanderbilt's guards and wing players outperform their Kentucky counterparts, the ‘Dores have the edge.
Somewhere in a math book, it says that the chances of flipping a coin on "heads" is always 50%, even if the coin has flipped "tails" 100 times in a row. Likewise, in basketball, past performance does not guarantee future results. The Wildcats and Commodores may seem like opposites at first, but a closer look reveals some similarities – neither team can blow the other off the court. Neither team can afford for their star player(s) to have an off night. Both teams' seasons could be defined by this game.
The Wildcats are the favorites in this game by a 4.5 or 5 point spread, according to Las Vegas. A smart basketball prognosticator would predict a score like Kentucky 70, Vanderbilt 65. But several invisible factors run in the Commodores' favor. Mario Moore's demeanor in recent interviews reflected a healthy mix of pride and acceptance of a smaller role on the team. The low energy and concentration that characterized the non-conference schedule for the ‘Dores were almost completely absent against Auburn in Vanderbilt's SEC opener. Kentucky would usually be enraged after a big loss, but perhaps in this "down" year that rage could be replaced by a self-doubt that none of the Wildcats know how to deal with. Vanderbilt has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, and Vanderbilt's two seniors will establish themselves on Tuesday as two of the best players and leaders in the SEC.
Vanderbilt 72, Kentucky 68
Vanderbilt Co-MVPs: Mario Moore, Julian Terrell
Kentucky MVP: Rajon Rondo