Vandy's Last Game
After a pedestrian first half, the Vanderbilt offense exploded in the second half in Amherst. The Commodores scored 50 points after halftime on 52.9 percent shooting. Their attack was a balanced one; A.J. Ogilvy led the team with 14 points, and five other ‘Dores scored at least nine points.
Perhaps most encouraging was Vanderbilt's success from beyond the arc. Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley continued their hot shooting, combining to convert five of seven attempts from long range, while Steve Tchiengang tossed in two triples as well. The ‘Dores shot 40 percent as a team on three-pointers, and they'll need to maintain that success to steal a win against a Kentucky team that won't make it easy in the paint.
The Wildcats (11-4) had a six-game winning streak snapped last weekend when an Edgar Sosa buzzer-beater lifted Louisville over the Cats in Freedom Hall. A season-opening home loss to VMI is the lone bad loss on a résumé that includes wins over West Virginia and Kansas State.
To this point, Kentucky has been essentially a two-headed monster. Junior sharpshooter Jodie Meeks and sophomore forward Patrick Patterson have accounted for 54.5 percent of the team's points, forming an inside-outside tandem to rival any other in the country. The lack of a third scoring option has plagued the Cats at times, however, as no player other than Patterson or Meeks averages over seven points per game.
In the teams' most recent meeting, Vanderbilt handed Kentucky an embarrassing 41-point loss in Memorial to avenge a double-overtime loss in Rupp earlier last season. The Commodores have won five out the last six against the Wildcats.
Patrick Patterson – Sophomore, 6-9, 235 lbs. – One of two early Kentucky candidates for SEC Player of the Year, Patterson has been a picture of efficiency in his sophomore campaign. Averaging 19.5 points per game, he is among the nation's leaders in field goal percentage, shooting an astronomical 71.3 percent from the floor. Patterson is a beast in the paint, a powerful finisher who can handle contact around the basket. He doesn't have the shooting range of an Ogilvy, but he makes up for it with superior athleticism and strength; Patterson can beat his man with a quick drop step or by outmuscling him on his way to the rim. Relentless on the glass, the sophomore leads Kentucky with 9.8 rebounds – including 2.4 offensive boards – per game.
Jodie Meeks – Junior, 6-4, 208 lbs. – The departure of Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford has cleared the way for Meeks, an explosive scorer on the wing. Leading Kentucky with 24.4 points per game, Meeks has consistently torched opponents with long-range marksmanship and the ability to blow by defenders en route to an athletic finish. Even with the vast increase in shot attempts, the junior is having by far his most offensively efficient season, shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from beyond the arc. Adept at creating scoring opportunities, Meeks leads the Wildcats with 94 free throw attempts, of which he has made 84. The Georgia native has struggled a bit against higher caliber defenses, shooting just 37.5 percent in six games against major conference schools. Ball control has also been a bug-a-boo for Meeks, as he's committed almost twice as many turnovers as assists.
Perry Stevenson – Junior, 6-9, 207 lbs. – Known more for his defense than his scoring ability, Stevenson is nonetheless Kentucky's third-leading scorer, averaging 6.9 points per game on 55.1 percent shooting. A long, nimble defender in the post and a menace from the weak side, Stevenson leads the Cats with 2.4 blocks per game. The junior also averages nearly seven boards and earns his team a couple of extra shots per game on the offensive glass. An effective role player alongside Kentucky's two stars, Stevenson has not been able to provide the offensive spark the Cats need from at least one other player.
Michael Porter – Junior, 6-3, 198 lbs. – Mostly a placeholder for freshman DeAndre Liggins, Porter currently occupies Kentucky's starting point guard spot. Averaging just 3.5 points per game, Porter does almost all of his scoring from beyond the arc, where he shoots 27.8 percent. His 2.9 assists per game are good for second on the team, and while he struggled with turnovers at the beginning of the season, he's done a better job of controlling the ball lately. A steady if unspectacular defender, Porter averages nearly a steal per game.
Kevin Galloway – Junior, 6-7, 215 lbs. – The fifth spot in the Wildcats' starting lineup has been in flux for most of the season, with Galloway most recently filling the role against Louisville. The junior forward averages 1.3 points and 1.3 rebounds in just 7.3 minutes per game. Barring foul trouble for Patterson or Stevenson, Galloway is not likely to see much time against the Commodores. This starting job could also go to Liggins or Ramon Harris.
Junior forward Ramon Harris and three newcomers round out the Wildcat rotation. At 6-7, Harris gives Kentucky a player who can score from within 15 feet and defend both on the wing and in the post. After logging just 21 minutes in the previous eight games, Harris grabbed three rebounds and failed to score in 23 minutes against Louisville.
Heralded freshmen DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller have yet to get a firm grasp on the college game. Liggins, a 6-6 point guard, has been brilliant at times, scoring 18 points and dishing out five assists against Miami. At other times, though, his youth has become evident; his 3.4 turnovers per game nearly negate his team-best 3.7 assists per contest.
Miller, a 6-7 forward, averages 3.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in nearly 20 minutes per game. A versatile scorer in high school, Miller has struggled with his shooting in his first year at Kentucky, shooting just 33.3 percent from the floor and making just four of his 20 attempts from beyond the arc.
Josh Harrelson, a 6-10 transfer, has shown the ability to be another scoring option for the Cats, scoring in double figures on five different occasions. The sophomore has received inconsistent playing time, but against Vanderbilt's sizable front line, Harrelson will likely play for more than the five minutes he was on the court against Louisville.
Keys to the Game
Pressure Meeks – Even with a bigger and more athletic frontcourt than last year's team, Vanderbilt will likely not be able to harass Patterson into as poor an outing as he had the last time the ‘Dores and Cats met. The sophomore has been as consistent as any player in the nation this season, so to neutralize the Kentucky attack, the Commodores would be wise to focus extra energy on limiting Jodie Meeks. North Carolina and Miami, two teams with both speed and length on the wings, were able to keep Meeks off-balance on the perimeter all game long, forcing him into longer and more rushed shot attempts. With Beal, Jeffery Taylor, and Lance Goulbourne, the Commodores have the personnel to make life difficult for Meeks. If Vanderbilt's perimeter defenders can stay with him beyond the arc, and if the Commodore forwards can help on defense without fouling the 90 percent free throw shooter, the ‘Dores have a good chance to limit Meeks' effectiveness and steal a win.
Keep the Balance – Vanderbilt's current six-game winning streak has been marked by balance scoring; seven different Commodores have scored in double figures over that stretch, including five who have done it at least twice. The ‘Dores desperately need significant contributions from their freshmen, particularly on the perimeter. If Beal and Ogilvy can play like the veterans Kevin Stallings expects them to be, and if the Commodores can avoid a monster game by both Patterson and Meeks, Saturday's game will be decided by the Vanderbilt freshmen's ability to have an impact on the offensive end, whether by the shooting of Tinsley and Goulbourne or the inside work of Taylor and Tchiengang. Include Darshawn McClellan in this group, too, as the sophomore has shown the ability to stretch defenses lately.
First Five Minutes – Rupp Arena will be the loudest and most intimidating place in which the Commodores have played this season, and Vanderbilt is bringing its youngest team in years to Lexington. Only four Commodores have any playing experience in Rupp, and only Beal and George Drake have won there. For this reason, the game's first five minutes will be crucial; if Kentucky builds a significant lead early, the crowd will make it difficult for the inexperienced Commodores to recover. On the other hand, if the ‘Dores can knock down a few shots early and match the Wildcats' physicality, look for the freshmen to build confidence and for the visitors to give the Cats a game.
Prediction: Vanderbilt enters Saturday's game playing its best ball of the season, while Kentucky will be hungry for a win after a heartbreaking loss last weekend. The match-up is an even one, meaning that Kentucky's home court advantage makes them the favorite. If Vanderbilt can harass Meeks into a subpar game, the visitors can start SEC play on a winning note, but after his solid outing at Louisville that's tough to predict. Final score: Kentucky 70, Vanderbilt 68.