After defeating the top-ranked Florida Gators last weekend, Vanderbilt couldn't avoid a letdown in Starkville. SEC Player of the Year candidate Derrick Byars was held to seven points as the Commodores proved no match for a streaking Mississippi State team. Now, with the coveted second-place spot in the SEC East at stake, the ‘Dores host division rival Kentucky in a Sunday matinee with potentially huge postseason ramifications.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky enter the game with matching 8-5 conference records. While the Commodores took down Florida to grab their eighth conference win, though, the Wildcats have limped through their last four games. Before pulling out a hard-fought home win over LSU on Tuesday, Coach Tubby Smith's team had lost three in a row.
The Commodores' win at Rupp in January was their third straight over Kentucky and their first conference road win. In that game, Derrick Byars and Shan Foster combined for 39 points, and no Wildcat scored more than 13. Vandy was able to control the tempo for most of the contest and shot 50 percent from the field to beat the ‘Cats.
Perhaps most important to the Vandy win, though, was their defense of star center Randolph Morris. The ‘Dores held Kentucky's leading scorer to 11 points on eight shot attempts. Limiting the 6-11 Morris's production will be crucial to a Vanderbilt victory in Memorial. Over the Wildcats' last five games, their center has averaged almost 17 points and just over nine rebounds. Shooting a blistering 58 percent from the field, Morris has been devastating on the block, even putting up 18 points on the Florida frontcourt of Joakim Noah and Al Horford. Vanderbilt has done a great job of containing opposing post players using constant double teams, and that strategy frustrated Morris when the teams met in January. If the Commodores can force the Kentucky center to pass out of double teams for 40 minutes, the Wildcats will have trouble balancing their offensive attack.
While the Vanderbilt defense did a great job of containing Morris in Rupp, it was even more effective in shutting down second-leading scorer Joe Crawford. Averaging 16.7 points per game in SEC play, Crawford has shown an ability to explode in any given game. His inconsistent play has hurt the Wildcats at times, though, and that inconsistency showed up against the Commodores. The 6-5 guard shot just 4-of-17 from the floor en route to 12 points, his second-lowest total in SEC games. Crawford began conference play on fire from beyond the arc, but his shooting numbers have declined recently. In Kentucky's past five games, the junior has connected on just 27 percent of his three-pointers. Most recently, Crawford went 2-for-8 for just six points against LSU. However, he torched Tennessee for 24 points after his last six-point performance, so Vanderbilt must repeat its concerted defensive effort against the Wildcat shooter.
Kentucky's other wing, junior Ramel Bradley, has been the team's catalyst lately. He sparked a three-game winning streak over Tennessee, Arkansas, and South Carolina by scoring over 20 points in each game. Like Crawford, though, Bradley's three-point shooting has fallen off in the Wildcats' most recent contests. A 36 percent three-point shooter on the year, the junior has hit a meager 4-of-18 from distance in the past three games. Bradley leads the team in assists, and he is one of Kentucky's best perimeter defenders. He'll likely be assigned to disrupt Vanderbilt's point guard play with his quickness and long reach. The Commodores will count on Alex Gordon to rebound from the Mississippi State game and get back to the level-headed play he's demonstrated throughout conference season.
At the point for Kentucky is 6-6 freshman Derrick Jasper. His 3.2 assists per game trail only Bradley for the team lead. Jasper isn't much of a scoring threat – he hasn't reached double figures in a single SEC game – but his 67 percent shooting from the floor leads the team, a stat that speaks to the freshman's unselfishness. Always looking to set up his teammates, Jasper only takes the best of shots. On the defensive end, his height is a great asset for a team whose wings are shorter than average. A good on-ball defender and a solid rebounder, look for Jasper to match up with Byars (or Shan Foster if he catches fire).
Senior forward Bobby Perry is the fifth Wildcat starter. Though Tubby Smith values Perry mostly for his intangibles and defense, the senior put his scoring ability on display in Kentucky's first game against Vandy. He connected on five of his seven shots en route to 13 points. The game was one of just three double-digit scoring efforts from Perry during SEC play. The 6-8 forward also dished out a season-high four assists against the Commodores. While the ‘Dores effectively defended Morris, Crawford, and Bradley, they allowed Perry to hurt them time and again. If the senior produces a similar effort in Memorial and one of the Wildcat scorers has a better game, Kentucky will have a great shot to win the game.
Another unlikely hero in the first meeting between the Commodores and Wildcats was senior Sheray Thomas. His 12 points against Vanderbilt marked a season-high (one point short of his career-high). The ‘Dores were caught off guard by his ability to consistently knock down the mid-range jumper, as the senior scores just over two points per game on average. On Sunday, Vandy cannot give Thomas such wide-open looks, because, like Perry, the senior can be the difference if Morris, Crawford, or Bradley goes off on the ‘Dores.
Freshman Jodie Meeks should be of particular concern to Vanderbilt. The 6-5 guard has picked up his play of late, as his 18 points took the load off of the struggling Crawford in the Wildcats' win over LSU. A 35 percent shooter from beyond the arc, Meeks is at his best when attacking the rim. However, he connected on three of his five attempts from three-point land against the Tigers. Though he struggled in the first game against Vandy, the ‘Dores must guard him as if he were Crawford or Bradley. If the freshman can replicate his effort against LSU, he'll add another scoring threat to the Wildcat offense and help open the middle for Morris.
With a premier center like Randolph Morris, the Wildcats aim to slow the tempo and establish their post presence. They are at their best when Morris gets his touches early in the shot clock, giving him the option to attack the basket but also leaving time for Bradley or Crawford to create a shot if the big man gets doubled. Vanderbilt's post defense will be critical in limiting the center's scoring, but when the ‘Dores slap on the double teams, the perimeter defenders will be equally important, as they cannot allow Kentucky's shooters to roam free around the three-point line looking for kick-outs.
Sunday's game will be an emotional battle. Vanderbilt's current three-game winning streak against Kentucky has bred some animosity between the two teams. Add in the game's importance in the conference standings, and the matinee has all the makings of a great one. To get a leg up in the race for an SEC Tournament bye and make it four straight over the Wildcats, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Force Turnovers: Vanderbilt's defense was phenomenal in their upset of the Gators. Florida's guards never felt comfortable against the Commodores' extended pressure, coughing it up 20 times in the loss. Meanwhile, Kentucky has looked downright sloppy lately. In the three-game losing streak against Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama, the Wildcats committed a total of 46 turnovers. Though the guards have been the primary culprits, Randolph Morris turned it over eight times in the loss to the Crimson Tide. If the Vandy forwards can maintain the effective double teams and Foster and Byars continue to lock down the perimeter, Kentucky will shoot itself in the foot too many times.
- 1-2 Punch: When Derrick Byars and Shan Foster both play at their best offensively, the Commodores are very hard to beat. Just ask Georgia Tech, whom Byars and Foster lit up with 43 points, or Florida, who gave up 48 to the duo. Even Kentucky allowed 39 points to the Vanderbilt stars. Against Mississippi State, though, Foster and Byars scored a combined 18 points, and the ‘Dores never had a chance. Foster seems to have escaped his midseason struggles, reaching double-figures in his last five games. If he can give Vanderbilt a second deadly scorer like he did against Florida, the Commodores should come out on top.
- Home Sweet Home: Like most SEC teams, Vanderbilt has struggled on the road lately. The Commodores' 6-0 conference home record has kept them above Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, though. Memorial Gym has been louder than a rock concert this season, giving the ‘Dores a home court advantage second to none. If the home team can jump out to a quick lead, the crowd will be all over the boys in blue.
Prediction: Big Blue Nation cringes at the thought of losing four in a row to Vanderbilt. The Commodores came back from Starkville licking their wounds, but they'll be raring to go in a contest as important as this one. The Memorial Maniacs will be out in force against hated Kentucky, and the way Vandy has played at home gives them the edge in this one. Final score: Vanderbilt 78, Kentucky 71.