Commodores Seek Revenge Against Kentucky

Vanderbilt grabbed its third straight win in dramatic fashion on Saturday, as Jermaine Beal's last-second runner lifted the Commodores over South Carolina. Returning to Memorial with momentum after two big road wins, the ‘Dores begin a four-game homestand on Tuesday. Revenge will be on their minds as they host Kentucky in a nationally televised rematch.

Saturday's game was a resurgence of sorts for both of the Commodores' stars.  After averaging a disappointing 13.7 points over the previous six games and missing his first three shots in Columbia, Shan Foster finished with 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting.  The Commodores' leading scorer seemed to regain some confidence in the second half, taking and hitting at least two huge shots down the stretch.  His 21 points and 5 three-pointers were both highs for SEC play.  Meanwhile, A.J. Ogilvy continued his recent improvement in conference games, scoring 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting.  The freshman has looked increasingly comfortable in the lane and against double teams lately, handing out a career-high five assists to go along with his seven field goals against the Gamecocks.  Ogilvy looked less comfortable at the free throw line, however, going 1-for-6 and missing the front ends on two crucial 1-and-1's. 

Overall, the Commodores showed encouraging signs in several areas of concern.  They shot better than 45.0 percent from the floor for the first time in a conference road game, outrebounded the Gamecocks 35-29, and committed just 10 turnovers after committing 17 against Carolina in the teams' first match-up.  The ‘Dores have proven to be a much better shooting team at home, but they'll need to build on the improvement in rebounding and turnovers against a Kentucky team that forced 22 turnovers and outrebounded Vanderbilt by 22 at Rupp Arena.

The Wildcats (12-9, 6-2) used their double-overtime win over the ‘Dores as a springboard to a turnaround in SEC play.  Since dropping consecutive road games to Mississippi State and Florida, Billy Gillispie's squad has won five in a row, including a home victory over then third-ranked Tennessee.  After a horrible showing in the non-conference schedule, now Kentucky is as hot as any team in the SEC.

Senior point guard Ramel Bradley has taken his game to a new level in conference play.  He leads the Wildcats and ranks seventh in the league in SEC scoring with 18.0 points per game.  Bradley had scored 20 points or more in four out of Kentucky's first five conference games before a head injury in a win at Georgia forced him to the bench not only for the remainder of that game, but for the entire Auburn game.  He returned to score 19 points in the Cats' most recent game, a home win over Alabama.  The 6-2 senior has been his team's most versatile scorer, leading Kentucky in three-pointers (42) and averaging almost seven free throw attempts per game.  Because of his ability to reach the charity stripe on a consistent basis, Bradley has been one of the SEC's most efficient perimeter scorers.  His 1.66 points per shot are tops on his team.  After scoring just 18 points in two games against Vanderbilt last season, the Wildcat point man poured in 20 against the Commodores in January.  Despite averaging a career-high and team-high 3.2 assists per game, Bradley can be turnover-prone; he committed six turnovers against the ‘Dores in Rupp.  In a big-game atmosphere, Vanderbilt needs to force Bradley to take tougher shots and limit his penetration, as the senior could really hurt the Commodores from the line. 

Complementing Bradley's perimeter scoring is freshman phenom Patrick Patterson.  The 6-9, 232-pound forward dominated the interior in the first match-up between the teams, putting up 23 points and 12 rebounds against the taller A.J. Ogilvy.  A gifted and tenacious post scorer, he's averaging 17.1 points per game on 55.1 percent shooting in SEC play.  Patterson has scored in double figures in every SEC game so far, and against the bigger, more athletic competition the Wildcats have faced in conference play, their freshman has been the key.  Kentucky lost two of the three league games in which Patterson shot worse than 50.0 percent and scored fewer than 16 points.  To keep him at bay, Vanderbilt must do a better job of keeping him off of the glass; Patterson snagged six offensive rebounds when the teams first met and is fifth in the SEC with 3.1 offensive boards per game in league play.

Joining Bradley and Patterson among the top ten scorers in SEC play is 6-5 senior Joe Crawford.  A mercurial player throughout his tenure at Kentucky, Crawford seems to have finally settled in during conference play, in which he's averaging 17.4 points on 48.3 percent shooting.  While Bradley's outside shooting has fallen off a bit since league games began, Crawford has thrived from beyond the arc, knocking down 18 threes on 47.4 shooting in SEC play.  Like his backcourt mate, he has increased his efficiency as a senior, averaging 1.34 points per shot, primarily due to his increased willingness to drive into the lane.  The senior scored 17 points to complement Pattson's 23 and Bradley's against Vanderbilt, but his biggest contribution in that game came on the defensive end.  Guarding Shan Foster all game is no easy task, yet Crawford held Vandy's top scorer into difficult shots all game long, limiting the then-top scorer in the SEC to 17 points.  The match-up between Foster and Crawford will be crucial on both ends on Tuesday. 

Sophomore forwards Ramon Harris and Mark Coury round out Kentucky's starting lineup.  The 6-7 Harris is averaging 3.6 points and 3.2 rebounds during SEC play, but he's seen a slight increase in minutes lately and responded with some inspired play.  He scored a combined 22 points in his last three games, including two nine-point efforts on the road at Georgia and Auburn.  His defensive work and rebounding ability are known benefits, but if Harris can become an "x-factor" on the offensive end, he could make a real difference in Nashville.

At 6-8 and 230 pounds, Coury has the size, if not the talent, to play with SEC big men.  After chipping in an unexpected nine points and five rebounds against Vanderbilt in Rupp, the sophomore has scored just 10 points and grabbed only eight rebounds since.  A sharp decline in playing time has caused the decrease in production; Coury has averaged just over five minutes per game in the Wildcats' last five contests.  However, he scored nine points in 17 minutes against the Commodores in Rupp.  Coury may not contribute much to the scoreboard, but going against an improving Vanderbilt front line with almost no size outside of Patterson could be recipe for disaster for Kentucky. 

Though Gillispie has continued to use Coury in his starting lineup, the first-year Kentucky coach has given more and more of his minutes to sophomore Perry Stevenson.  The lanky, 6-9 forward has played at least 31 minutes in each of the Cats' last five games.  Over that span, Stevenson is averaging 10.0 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest.  The sophomore has been a model of efficiency, shooting 61.1 percent from the floor en route to 1.56 points per shot.  A solid yet undersized defender, he grabbed a season-high five steals against the Commodores.

Sophomore Derrick Jasper has battled lingering injuries all season long.  The 6-6 guard has never been a big offensive threat, but he's managed just 3.2 points per game since returning from injury just before the start of SEC play.  Hampered as he has been, Jasper doesn't offer much scoring versatility; of his 34 points, 27 have come from beyond the three-point line.  His contributions have been important elsewhere, though, as his 5.8 rebounds per game are second to Patterson among Wildcats, and he hands out 2.2 assists per game. 

With Jodie Meeks' status still in doubt, sophomore Michael Porter rounds out the Kentucky rotation.  After playing a combined three minutes in the team's first five conference games, the 6-2 guard has averaged 15.3 minutes over the last three games. Like Jasper, most of Porter's points have come from three-point distance.  The sophomore is shooting 43.3 percent from long range on the year; when he's on the floor, Vanderbilt cannot afford to lose track of him just because he's not a great scorer.

Bradley, Patterson, and Crawford are not just the keys to Kentucky's offense; the trio is virtually the entire Wildcat offense.  In SEC play, they have combined for 75.8 percent of their team's scoring.  For comparison, Vanderbilt's top three scorers – Foster, Ogilvy, and Gordon – contribute 55.9 percent of the Commodores' output.  Bradley, Crawford and Patterson each boast a different skill set, making it difficult to come up with a strategy to limit all three of them.  The Commodores may try a zone to limit Bradley's penetration; the strategy worked against Georgia's Sundiata Gaines and South Carolina's Devan Downey.  With Bradley shooting just 34 percent from three-point range in conference play, the zone could limit penetration without too much risk from the outside.  In all likelihood, though, Vanderbilt will play man-to-man for most of the game.  In that case, Jermaine Beal must be on the floor as much as possible to guard Bradley, and if Beal isn't out there, George Drake should be guarding the Kentucky senior.  Meanwhile, Foster and Ogilvy must get physical with Crawford and Patterson, respectively. 

Two teams riding important winning streaks will meet Tuesday night, and only one will continue their streak, while the other will come up short in a game that is crucial for both teams.  For Vanderbilt, the game presents a chance to serve the Cats some comeuppance as well as a chance to start the four-game homestand right.  To slow the Wildcats and come away with a big win on ESPN, here are the keys for the Commodores:

  • The "T" Word:  Kentucky has been able to force their tempo on every SEC opponent so far.  In eight Wildcat conference games, only once has either team scored 80 points – Kentucky put up 81 in overtime at Florida.  The Cats average around 65 possessions per game, compared to around 70 for Vanderbilt, so the goal for the Commodores will be to reach that 70 possessions mark.  Especially considering Kentucky's lack of depth, look for the ‘Dores to try to play at a fast pace early on.  If Vanderbilt can force some early turnovers and hit some shots in transition, they could build a big lead by halftime.  Conversely, if the Wildcats force the ‘Dores into the same type of physical, half-court game they played in Rupp, then Vanderbilt's three-point shooting will decide the Commodores' fate
  • Crash Test:  The Wildcats outrebounded the Commodores 45-23 and grabbed 15 offensive boards in the teams' first match-up.  If Vanderbilt had been able to prevent any of those second-chance points, the ‘Dores would have had a great shot to win the game.  Kentucky ranks first in the SEC with an average rebounding margin of +4.9 per game.  The Commodores, meanwhile, come in tenth with a margin of -4.0 per game.  The Wildcats will most likely win the rebounding battle, but if the ‘Dores can keep the margin within 5 or 6 instead of 20, they have a great chance to protect their home court.  Rebounding is one reason why a zone could be dangerous against the Wildcats.  Although it would help limit penetration, the lack of boxing-out assignments could make for plenty of second-chance points for Patterson and company.
  • Battle of the Freshmen II:  Patrick Patterson clearly outplayed A.J. Ogilvy in Rupp Arena, and Ogilvy admitted to some nervousness after the game.  Now, in the thick of the conference season and within the friendly confines of Memorial Gym, the Aussie should be primed for payback.  He's experienced nine games worth of physical SEC post play and has a game against Patterson under his belt.  Look for Ogilvy to assert himself early; if he can knock down a few shots or draw a couple of early fouls on the Kentucky freshman, it could be a banner night for the Commodore center.  On the other hand, if Patterson comes out as strong as he did in Rupp, Ogilvy's confidence may be shaken yet again.

Prediction:  Returning home after two gutsy road wins, the Commodores won't be caught off guard by the Wildcats again.  Kentucky punched the ‘Dores in the mouth from the opening tip in Rupp; in Memorial, look for Vanderbilt to be the team to sprint out to an early lead out of the gate.  A raucous crowd will be on hand for this nationally televised rematch, and the Commodores will be full of emotion.  If they can translate that into big plays in the first ten minutes, they'll get their payback.  Final score: Vanderbilt 78, Kentucky 70.


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