Kentucky fans were distressed by their pre-conference performance, but hoped that the controversial return of star post player Randolph Morris would turn the tide. When Morris played his first game of the season – a home game against Vanderbilt – his impact was smaller than expected and the Commodores sunk Kentucky's spirits. While the Wildcats have been able to post several respectable wins since that game, they are in the midst of a historical lack of confidence, and another loss to Vanderbilt could create even more chaos in their program.
Last Wednesday I said that the game against Alabama was as important as any that Vanderbilt had played since their Sweet 16 appearance, and this game against Kentucky is not quite up to that level of importance. The reason for that is that even with a win on Saturday, the Commodores need to pull off an improbable string of victories to reach their goals for this season. However, a loss to Kentucky would essentially leave Vanderbilt to fight for an NIT bid if they do not win the SEC tournament.
In this critically important game, the Commodores are expected to start Alex Gordon, Derrick Byars, Shan Foster, DeMarre Carroll, and Julian Terrell. All five played well against Alabama, and are determined to play even better each game for the rest of the season. Dan Cage and Davis Nwankwo, who played 28 and 18 minutes respectively in their last game, will be the main bench players for the Commodores. Ted Skuchas and Alan Metcalfe have had very limited playing time in the past few Commodore games, but both may be useful to help defend Randolph Morris.
Kentucky is almost sure to start Rajon Rondo, Patrick Sparks, Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris, and somebody else. The four players listed above have each started at least 8 of the Wildcats' 9 SEC games. Bobby Perry and Sheray Thomas have been fighting for the fifth starting spot – Perry has started 5 SEC games, Thomas has started 4. Both average roughly 20 minutes per SEC contest and have similar numbers in most other statistical categories. Bobby Perry is a more potent scoring threat and has more perimeter shooting ability than Thomas, but Thomas has the potential to rebound more effectively and be physically tougher than his teammate.
Rajon Rondo has been the season's savior for Kentucky, but his presence has faded since January. In the pre-conference schedule, Rondo led Kentucky in every major statistical category – including points, assists, and rebounds. However, in the SEC season, Rondo trails Morris and Crawford in scoring, has fewer assists than Patrick Sparks, and one fewer rebound than Morris. He does still lead the team in playing time, with 33 minutes per game.
Rondo and Sparks are impressive ball distributers – they have combined for 77 assists and only 37 turnovers in 2006. While they are the team's third and fourth leading scorers, they are also responsible for getting the ball to Crawford and Morris. Many Kentucky fans think that Morris needs to touch the ball even more often than he has. Rondo is the only Wildcat who has taken more shots than Randolph Morris since Morris joined the team, and he is often criticized for taking too many three point shots despite being a poor shooter.
Morris's field goal percentage is one of the highest in the SEC – 61.9% -- and the Commodores' post defense has not been strong in recent games. Ted Skuchas may be called on as a defensive specialist to keep Morris out of his normal post position, despite Ted's recent struggles. The Commodores also may attempt to get Morris in early foul trouble – he averages nearly 3.5 fouls per game, and foul trouble has limited Morris's minutes this season. Despite being the most productive Wildcat (leading them in points and rebounds), Morris has played fewer minutes per game in 2006 than three of his teammates, and has fouled out of a game. He has committed 11 more fouls in SEC play than any of his teammates.
That brings us to the keys of the game for the Commodores.
(1) Don't let Randolph Morris win the game – force Kentucky to go to their second or third offensive option when Morris is on the court. Zone defense could work, but there must be a big body on Morris at all times. Also, the ‘Dores should attack Morris with the ball – try to draw fouls on the foul-prone big man. He may not foul out, but Vanderbilt could take advantage of 5 or 10 extra minutes without Morris on the court. By the way, if you're a Kentucky fan, I hope you've sent an early Valentine's Day gift to your local NCAA arbitrator.
(2) Stay the Course – the effort seen against Alabama must not disappear in this game. The Wildcats will come to Memorial more motivated than they have been in weeks, hoping for revenge and knowing that they have fallen to "bubble" status. Vanderbilt's intensity, heart, and hunger must exceed Kentucky's. Vanderbilt's home crowd fans must keep encouraging the team and never stop making noise – Kentucky travels well, but their fans will likely be discouraged when trouble arises in what is still a hostile environment.
(3) Win the wing game – Shan Foster and Derrick Byars should be able to outmatch Patrick Sparks and Joe Crawford, despite the fact that all four players have done fairly well this season. Byars' health after tweaking his ankle will be critical to the Commodores' success, and that health is still somewhat of a question mark. Vanderbilt's defensive strategy might involve the statement "let them beat us with three pointers if they can," but UK will play tough defense focused on VU's wing players. If both Foster and Byars have big nights, it could be the beginning of a beautiful winning streak for Vanderbilt.
A big problem for Vanderbilt as this game approaches is the center position. Ted Skuchas was relatively successful at Rupp Arena on the defensive end – holding Morris below his average level of production, albeit in his debut. However, Skuchas only played one minute (two fouls, one turnover) at Alabama, and is not likely to start against Kentucky. Julian Terrell will be forced to play defense against Kentucky's star producer, and Terrell cannot afford to get into foul trouble. That will be a critical matchup, and Morris has the edge. At the point guard position, Rondo's defensive prowess and rebounding ability could give Vanderbilt absolute fits, especially when Alex Gordon needs a breather. The matchup between Rondo and Vanderbilt's point guards is also critical.
With those two matchups in mind, it is difficult to pick against Kentucky, despite the fact that Vanderbilt is a 3.5 point favorite in Las Vegas 12 hours before the game. The Commodores will give this game their all, and perhaps their luck will turn around. However, I think that foul trouble in the post will make this a long night for Vanderbilt, helping Randolph Morris. Also, one cannot overlook Sheray Thomas or Bobby Perry, both of whom can score some points in the paint – especially if Vandy's post depth is tested by foul calls. Expect a close game, with Vanderbilt pushing the tempo more than usual until the foul situation limits their depth.
Kentucky 72, Vanderbilt 70
Kentucky MVP – Randolph Morris
Vanderbilt MVP – Derrick Byars