Now the ‘Dores embark on a two-game road swing that could dramatically improve their postseason chances. Before heading to Baton Rouge this Wednesday, Vandy visits Rupp Arena to take on the Kentucky Wildcats.
With a 15-3 overall record, Kentucky joins Florida as one of two SEC teams that have not yet lost a conference game. Their current 11-game winning streak includes wins against Indiana, at Louisville, and wins over conference cellar-dwellers Ole Miss and South Carolina. Great defense, a frequent calling card of Coach Tubby Smith, has been the Wildcats' foundation this season. Kentucky has not allowed an opponent to score more than 60 points in an SEC game.
The Wildcats dropped out of the top 25 following a Maui Invitational in which they lost to UCLA and Memphis. Since then, their only loss was in Chapel Hill, and many consider the surging ‘Cats to be one of the most underrated teams in the country. On Saturday, the Commodores look to make Kentucky their third ranked victim in conference play and the first SEC team they've beaten on the road.
Containing junior center Randolph Morris would go a long way toward a Vanderbilt upset. The 6-11 Atlanta native ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring (16.4 ppg) and fifth in field goal percentage (60.1 percent). While the Commodores were able to hold Alabama center Jermareo Davidson to just 41 percent shooting, Morris presents a different kind of challenge. Lacking Davidson's touch from outside, the Wildcat big man makes his living almost exclusively in the paint. He possesses strong post moves and is easily Kentucky's best rebounder, but he is not a very good passer, averaging just one assist and almost two turnovers per contest. With 2.2 blocks per game, Morris can be too aggressive in going after the blocked shot. If Vanderbilt can find Ross Neltner in the post like they did against Alabama, they could draw some early fouls from the Kentucky center.
While Morris provides the muscle on the interior for the ‘Cats, 6-5 junior Joe Crawford gives them plenty of punch from the perimeter. Averaging 14 points per game, Crawford has cranked his play up a notch since the start of SEC play. In four conference games, the swingman has averaged just over 20 points per game, most recently logging a 23-point performance against South Carolina. Though this surge in scoring shouldn't surprise anyone, Crawford's shooting numbers have spiked dramatically in the past four games. A 38 percent three-point shooter on the season, the junior has buried 13 shots in 19 attempts from beyond the arc in SEC games, a whopping 68 percent from distance. In two games against Vanderbilt last season, Crawford went 0-for-8 from three-point land, but with the way he's been shooting lately, the Commodores cannot afford to sleep on him.
Junior guard Ramel Bradley began the season as Tubby Smith's point guard, and although he proved to be an effective scorer in that role, the Kentucky offense stalled too often when he dribbled too much. To fix the problem, Smith slid Bradley to off-guard and handed point guard duties to freshman Derrick Jasper. Not only has the junior scored in double figures in every game since the change, but he's also averaged more assists and fewer turnovers. Now, Bradley leads the Wildcats in assists (3.8 apg) and three-point percentage (42.7 percent). The best result of the lineup shuffle? The ‘Cats haven't lost since Tubby moved Ramel over.
Freshman Derrick Jasper has taken over ball-handling duties from Bradley, and he's done an admirable job, averaging 3.4 assists per contest. Though he doesn't score much (5.2 ppg), the freshman is Kentucky's most efficient scorer. His 1.86 points per shot leads the team, and his 64 percent from the field is best among Wildcats with at least 50 shot attempts. At 6-6, Jasper is already the Wildcats' best perimeter defender and will likely match up with Derrick Byars or Shan Foster while the shorter Bradley guards the Commodore point guard.
Senior "glue guy" Bobby Perry rounds out Kentucky's starting five. Usually a reliable outside shooter, Perry has struggled with his shot this season. His field goal and three-point percentages are down from a season ago. The 6-8 forward has improved his passing, though, posting a positive assist-to-turnover ratio for the first time in his career. His match-up with Dan Cage will be an interesting one, as both are fours (Cage by default) who like to drift toward the perimeter. Cage's ability to keep Perry off of the offensive glass will be crucial in limiting the Wildcats' shots.
Another 6-8 "glue guy," senior Sheray Thomas, shares minutes with Perry at the forward spot. Like Perry, Thomas can be effective on the offensive boards, as almost half of his rebounds have been offensive. At the same time, though, Thomas has been virtually a non-factor scoring-wise, shooting a meager 31 percent from the field. He is valued most for his experience, defense, and 240-pound frame.
Backcourt depth is provided by 6-5 freshman Jodie Meeks. A highly-touted recruit in his own right, Meeks has explosive quickness to the rim and on the defensive end. He hasn't shot particularly well from the field (39 percent, 30 percent on three-pointers), but he is a good finisher and an excellent free throw shooter, making him doubly dangerous off penetration.
With good perimeter shooters around one of the SEC's better big men, Kentucky thrives in a half-court setting. Morris and Crawford are the first options for the ‘Cats, but Ramel Bradley makes opponents pay for keying on his teammates too much. All 15 of Bradley's points against South Carolina came from behind the arc. Combined with the red-hot Crawford, Bradley stretches opposing defenses and opens things up in the paint for Morris.
As the Commodores saw last season in Rupp Arena, these Wildcats like to grind it out and constantly pound the ball down low. What they didn't have last year, however, was a consistent scoring threat from the wing. Patrick Sparks was a solid shooter, but he didn't have the ability to create his own looks. The emergence of Crawford and Bradley as legitimate scorers has made Kentucky a more balanced team, and the freshmen's perimeter defense makes the ‘Cats better equipped to seize control of the tempo. Add one of the best home court advantages in the conference, and it's easy to see that the ‘Dores have their work cut out for them on Saturday.
Having swept Kentucky last year, Vanderbilt will not be intimidated, but the Wildcats will be eager to exact revenge on the visitors. Here are the keys to a crucial road win for Vanderbilt:
- Strike first: Kentucky fans have long memories, and they'll be fired up to see their team take down a Vanderbilt squad that won in Rupp last season. The Commodores must display intensity from the opening tip and get good shots early. If Vandy can establish a quicker tempo in the first couple of minutes and get early contributions from Shan Foster, their energy level will remain high and they'll be able to hang with the home team. On the other hand, if the ‘Dores let Kentucky hit them in the mouth first and can't get Foster involved, look for a letdown in Lexington.
- Contain the beast: Randolph Morris is the best true center Vanderbilt will have seen all year. On the defensive end, Ted Skuchas will be a key player for the Commodores. His interior defense provided a serious spark against Alabama; expect the senior to see more minutes against Morris and the ‘Cats. Offensively, look for Ross Neltner to try to draw Morris out to the perimeter and beat him backdoor for lay-ups. If Neltner can do those two things successfully, Morris' shot-blocking abilities will be somewhat neutralized and the floor will open up for the Commodore offense.
- Alex Gordon: In a half-court game, the point guard is vitally important. Gordon has been almost flawless against ranked teams, handing out 14 assists and committing just three turnovers in two games against Alabama and Tennessee, and his shooting percentages have improved dramatically from last season. If he can continue to create for his teammates without making careless mistakes and continue to come through with timely outside shooting, expect Vanderbilt to compete for 40 minutes.
Prediction: Vanderbilt played its best game of the season against Alabama. Not only did the Commodores shoot over 50 percent from downtown, but they also got plenty of easy buckets with penetration and interior passing. Such easy looks will be harder to come by against Kentucky, a better defensive team than the Crimson Tide. Further, the ‘Dores have been Mr. Hyde on the road, and Rupp Arena is a much more difficult atmosphere than you'll find in Auburn or Athens. Foster, however, loves a loud gym; look for him to get hot again early, but until the Vanderbilt that thrives in Memorial shows up on the road, it's too hard to pick them in Lexington against a very good defensive team. Final score: Kentucky 76, Vanderbilt 70.