Though Wednesday's win was Vanderbilt's fourth straight over South Carolina, the Gamecocks were not easy prey. Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick combined for 43 points, and Kevin Stallings and Dave Odom both claimed that the game was Carolina's best performance of the season. The ‘Cocks forced 17 Commodore turnovers, and Dwayne Day gave the best defensive effort on Shan Foster of any opponent this season. Foster was held to a season-low 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting as Day matched his athleticism for most of the evening. In the end, A.J. Ogilvy ruled the day, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half to lead all scorers. Defensively, the Commodores were solid, allowing South Carolina to shoot just 40.8 percent and giving up almost nothing to the Gamecock post players.
Kentucky's struggles in the first half of the season have been well documented. The Wildcats stand at 6-7 in Billy Gillipsie's first year at the helm, partly due to a rash of injuries and partly due to all-around poor play. A home loss to Gardner-Webb in the second game of the season began the team's downward spiral, which has since included a home loss to San Diego and blowouts at the hands of Indiana, Houston, and Louisville. To compound problems, highly touted freshman Alex Legion has transferred. The Wildcats have had a week to prepare for their first SEC game, though, and they undoubtedly view the clash with the undefeated Commodores as a chance to turn their season around.
If Kentucky does hope to protect its home court, they'll need a strong outing from standout freshman Patrick Patterson. The five-star forward has been the one player that Gillispie can count on to be a force on both ends of the floor almost every night. He leads the Wildcats in scoring with 16.8 points per game, and as a 6-9 hyper-athletic power forward, Patterson has been able to get most any shot around the basket, where he does almost all of his damage. His 62.1 percent shooting ranks sixth among SEC players who have attempted at least 80 shots – for comparison, A.J. Ogilvy is third at 66.4 percent. More than just a scorer, Patterson also leads the team in rebounds (8.1 per game), offensive boards (35), and blocks (1.4 per game). In Kentucky's most recent game, a home loss to Louisville, Patterson managed just six points on 3-of-14 shooting as the physical Cardinal forwards forced him into tough shots all game long. His match-up with Ogilvy will be the game's most anticipated and most important – these freshmen mean that much to their teams.
Senior Ramel Bradley has reclaimed the point guard position due to Derrick Jasper's injury problems and Gillispie's soft spot for scoring points. The 6-2 New York native averages a career-high 14.8 points per game, and he's been Kentucky's best perimeter threat. Bradley leads the Wildcats in three-pointers (28) and three-point percentage (45.9 percent). Scoring-wise, the senior has been at his best this season, putting up career highs in not only three-point numbers, but also in field goal and free throw percentage. Most remarkably, he leads the team in scoring efficiency, averaging 1.66 points per shot. As a distributor, his numbers have declined a bit, but his 3.1 assists per game are still tops on the team. Bradley struggled against the Commodores last season, scoring just 18 points in two games, and he's battled inconsistency through most of this year. However, he's averaging 23.0 points per game over the last three contests, so the Vanderbilt guards must always be mindful of the senior.
Sophomore Jodie Meeks joins Bradley in the backcourt. The 6-4 guard has been hampered by leg problems, missing seven non-conference games, but he should be ready to go in the biggest game of Kentucky's season to date. In the six games he's played, Meeks has been a bit of a mystery, scoring nine or fewer points in four games but pouring in 21 in the other two. His struggles can be blamed mostly on his injuries, as the sophomore relies heavily on his quickness and explosiveness around the basket. Traditionally, Meeks isn't a great outside shooter, but he canned 5-of-9 three-pointers just two games ago. If the week off has allowed him to regain some of his explosiveness, Meeks could be a real thorn in Vanderbilt's side.
A pair of relative unknowns rounds out the Wildcats' starting lineup. Sophomore forwards Ramon Harris and Mark Coury average just 4.4 and 2.8 points per game, respectively, but Gillispie prizes them for their grit as well as their size, something Kentucky severely lacks. Harris stands 6-7, Coury 6-8, and each knows his place on the team. Harris' 3.8 rebounds per game are good for second among Wildcats with more than three games under their belts, and Coury has been totally dedicated to limiting opposing posts. The two have seen their minutes decline with the return of Meeks and Jasper, but Kentucky will still need their height against the most formidable frontcourt Vanderbilt has boasted in a long time.
Though he's lost his starting job, senior Joe Crawford still ranks second on the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game and remains one of the Wildcats' top offensive threats. Crawford has increased his scoring average despite a decrease in playing time under Gillispie, who hasn't taken well to the senior's often questionable attitude. As a scorer, the 6-5 former McDonald's All-American has never been better. He's shooting a career-high 46.3 percent from the floor and 82.0 percent from the charity stripe. While his three-point percentage has languished at around 28 percent, his efficiency has spiked because of his improvements inside the arc and at the free throw line. Crawford is averaging 1.31 points per shot this season. Like Bradley, he struggled against the Commodores last season, scoring a combined 21 points on 8-of-24 shooting in the two games, but Crawford is capable of hurting a Vanderbilt team that has been hurt by perimeter scoring a number of times already. The lingering doubt with the senior will be his health, as he is suffering from plantar fasciitis.
Sophomore Derrick Jasper returned from injury three games ago and will certainly improve Kentucky's play. The steady point guard isn't much of a scorer, averaging just 3.9 points per game as a freshman, but he's a capable distributor, solid defender, and good rebounder. He's already grabbed 19 rebounds and handed out nine assists since returning to action.
Perry Stevenson, a 6-8 sophomore forward, adds some depth to the Kentucky frontcourt. His minutes have fluctuated constantly, as has his production. He's ranged from five to 34 minutes this season, and he put up 18 points in 27 minutes against Stony Brook while only mustering four points in 34 minutes against Tennessee Tech. Stevenson has been economical offensively, shooting 63.9 percent and averaging 1.50 points per shot, but he's played a combined 13 minutes in the past two games, so Vanderbilt may not see much of the sophomore as long as Jasper, Meeks, and Crawford remain healthy enough to play.
Sophomore guard Michael Porter rounds out the Wildcats' regular rotation, although he didn't play against Louisville and figures to see less time with the return of Jasper. Porter offers a feisty spirit and a smooth jumper. More than half of his shots have come from behind the three-point line, where he shoots 42.9 percent.
As has been the norm for Kentucky over the past few years, the Wildcats prefer a much slower tempo than Vanderbilt likes. They average about 69 possessions per game, which puts them in the middle of the pack nationally, whereas the Commodores are among the 30 fastest teams in the country in terms of tempo. Though he's not a true center by any means, Patrick Patterson fills the void left by the departure of Randolph Morris – that is, he's the talented offensive post player that Kentucky surrounds with perimeter shooters. With Patterson as the centerpiece, the Wildcats aim for a half-court game rather than the up-and-down affairs Vanderbilt has been a part of so often lately.
Kentucky is desperate for a signature win to salvage what has been a disastrous season so far. Beating the Commodores, who are undefeated, ranked in the top 15, and have won four straight against the Wildcats, might be just what the doctor ordered for the Big Blue Nation. That motivation combined with a week to prepare could make this a closer game than the teams' performance to date would dictate. For the ‘Dores to avoid a letdown at Rupp, here are the keys to the game:
- Run, Run, Run: Teams have found success playing at a fast pace against the Wildcats. Gardner Webb, North Carolina, UAB, Houston, San Diego, and Louisville all won games in which the combined score eclipsed 150 points. None of Kentucky's wins have seen total scores that high. The Commodores' 86.8 points per game are a pretty good indication that Saturday's game will be a high-scoring one, provided the visitors don't suffer a letdown from the perimeter. Jermaine Beal, Alex Gordon, and Keegan Bell have done a good job pushing the tempo without getting out of control. If they can continue that in a hostile environment, and if Shan Foster can return to form, then the ‘Dores should be able to get their customary 80-85 points.
- Frosh vs. Frosh: The key match-up on Saturday will be between Patterson, an extremely athletic, true power forward, and A.J. Ogilvy, a true center who is offensively skilled beyond his years. Patterson is athletic enough to hold his own against the bigger Ogilvy, and his superior quickness may allow him to face up and score against the precocious Aussie. However, Ogilvy should have his way on the offensive end, and he has a penchant for getting smaller defenders in foul trouble. If he can force Patterson to the bench for extended stretches, Vanderbilt will have a huge advantage down low.
- Road Test: While the ‘Dores faced unfriendly crowds at Toledo and DePaul, neither measure up to the environment they'll face on Saturday. The Kentucky nation will be out in force, looking to release two months worth of pent-up frustration on the Commodores. Foster, Gordon, and Neltner have been there and done that, but the same can't be said for the talented Vanderbilt freshmen. Ogilvy is too talented to be denied by the Blue Mist, but can Bell, McClellan, and Walker keep their heads in Rupp? If so, look for the freshmen to make key contributions in a Vanderbilt win.
Prediction: For the first time in who-knows-how-long, Vanderbilt will be favored heading into Rupp Arena. However, the Wildcats will be playing on emotion, and they have much more talent than the 6-7 record would suggest. If Bradley, Meeks, or Crawford can hit some early outside shots to go along with solid play from Patterson inside, the Cats could hang around long enough to pull out the victory. Behind an icy-veined senior like Shan Foster and a force like A.J. Ogilvy, though, the Commodores simply have too much for this year's Kentucky squad. If Vanderbilt builds up a big lead in the first half, the Cats will crumble. Final score: Vanderbilt 82, Kentucky 74.