Vandy's Last Game
Sloppy play and a career day for Tennessee's Tyler Smith spelled doom for the visiting Commodores over the weekend. Vanderbilt committed 23 turnovers against a Volunteer squad that brought more pressure than the ‘Dores saw in the teams' first match-up. The hosts scored 21 points off of the Commodores' miscues en route to a 69-50 victory.
Even when the ‘Dores didn't turn the ball over, they had a hard time finding any sort of offensive rhythm. In a throwback to early conference play, the team shot just 38.8 percent from the floor, including a paltry 12.5 percent from beyond the arc. Just two Vanderbilt players (A.J. Ogilvy and Brad Tinsley) reached double figures in scoring, as the Commodores matched their lowest offensive output of the season.
Vanderbilt's defense was relatively stout during a first half that saw 18 combined field goals. The Commodores essentially neutralized Wayne Chism, cutting off Tennessee's post entries and forcing the Vols into more perimeter shots. On the back of Tyler Smith, however, the hosts shot 55.2 percent in the second half to pull away from the ‘Dores. Smith scored 30 points on 10-of-13 shooting, his best scoring day as a Volunteer.
The Wildcats (18-7, 7-3) appear to have righted the ship since losing three straight to fall to 5-3 in league play. Billy Gillispie's squad won a nail-biter over Florida last week before pounding Arkansas in Fayetteville on Saturday. The defeat of the Gators came with a price, though, as center Patrick Patterson sprained an ankle in the closing minutes in Lexington. Patterson missed Saturday's game, and his status is in question for the upcoming clash at Memorial.
Without Patterson in the lineup, the Wildcats will be hard-pressed to replace the sophomore's significant presence on both ends of the court. Though Jodie Meeks is a threat to score 30 whenever he steps onto the court, Patterson is Kentucky's only other double-digit scorer. His absence would create a huge offensive void in an already-thin Wildcat frontcourt.
While they boast the league's best scorer, the Cats have recently made winning with defense a habit. Since the start of SEC play, Kentucky leads the conference in scoring and field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to average 65.1 points per game and shoot 37.8 percent from the floor. The Wildcats' interior defense has been suffocating; according to Ken Pomeroy, they rank in the top five nationally in two-point shooting percentage defense (39.7 percent) and the percentage of opponents' possessions on which they record a block (18.0 percent). That stout interior would certainly take a hit should Patterson be unable to play.
In the teams' most recent meeting, Kentucky stifled a Vanderbilt comeback in Rupp Arena, handing the ‘Dores a ten-point loss in both teams' conference opener.
Jodie Meeks – Junior, 6-4, 208 lbs. – Meeks' scoring exploits – including the 54-point explosion in Knoxville and, most recently, his Bud Walton Arena record 45-point outing against Arkansas – have been well-documented and rightly so. The junior is the nation's fourth-leading scorer, and he has only increased his output since the start of conference play. Meeks is averaging a league-best 26.0 points per game in SEC play, nearly five points better than his closest competitor. An assassin from the perimeter, he leads the conference with 3.7 three-pointers per contest, and he is converting them at a 44.6 percent clip in league games. Meeks is more than a three-point bomber, though; he is relentless when attacking the basket and is both a strong finisher and the conference's second-leading free throw shooter. The Wildcat guard scored 21 points on 5-of-16 shooting against Vanderbilt in Rupp.
Patrick Patterson – Sophomore, 6-9, 235 lbs. – If Patterson does play Tuesday, even with a bad ankle, his physical presence alone will help slow A.J. Ogilvy, who has a clear size advantage over Perry Stevenson and is significantly quicker than Josh Harrelson. Unlike Meeks, Patterson has seen his production fall since the start of SEC play, perhaps due in part to a lingering finger injury. His conference averages of 15.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game are both lower than his cumulative averages, and while he shot 71.3 percent from the floor in non-conference action, he is converting 52.5 percent of his shots in SEC games. Patterson was not a huge factor in the Wildcats' January win over the ‘Dores, scoring 11 points and grabbing a single rebound against Vanderbilt's sizable and athletic front line.
Perry Stevenson – Junior, 6-9, 207 lbs. – Though his reputation is as a defensive player, Stevenson has given the Wildcats a third source of scoring at times during conference play. The lanky forward is averaging 10.6 points in Kentucky's league wins. His 7.6 rebounds per game in conference play rank eighth in the SEC, and his 1.9 blocks per game are good for third. If Vanderbilt can keep him off of the offensive glass and prevent him from catching the ball within five feet of the basket, Stevenson will be unlikely to emerge as a third scorer for the Wildcats.
Ramon Harris – Junior, 6-7, 218 lbs. – Harris suffered a scare when he collapsed at halftime of a win over Alabama, and his playing time has been inconsistent since then. A versatile defender, Harris will likely spend some time in the post if Patterson cannot play. The junior is not much of an offensive threat, averaging 3.7 points per game in league play, but he was a thorn in Vanderbilt's side the first time the teams met this season, scoring 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting.
Michael Porter – Junior, 6-3, 198 lbs. – While Billy Gillispie continues to tinker with freshman DeAndre Liggins's playing time, Porter maintains his grasp on the starting point guard spot. The junior is not a threat to score from anywhere except beyond the three-point line, where he is shooting 42.1 percent during SEC play. Porter also lacks any real ability to create shots for his teammates; he has logged just one more assist than turnovers since the start of league games.
If Patterson is forced to sit for the second straight game, 6-10 sophomore Josh Harrelson will likely step into the starting lineup. A bulky center with a decent touch from the perimeter, Harrelson scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in Kentucky's recent win over Florida.
DeAndre Liggins, the Wildcats' mercurial backup point guard, has struggled since the start of SEC play. The 6-6 freshman is shooting just 23.2 percent from the floor in league games, and his minutes have ranged over that span from a career-high 24 against Ole Miss to just seven in the win against the Gators.
Fellow freshman Darius Miller has seen his playing time increase in recent weeks, and the 6-7 forward has responded by contributing across the board. Miller is a superior athlete who thrives in the open court.
Keys to the Game
Pressured Is the Meeks – Armed with size, athleticism, and quickness on the wing, Vanderbilt has the personnel to defend Jodie Meeks as well as any team in the conference. The Commodores threw several defenders at the Kentucky junior in Rupp Arena, holding Meeks to 31.3 percent shooting. Only Ole Miss has forced the SEC's leading scorer into a worse percentage from the floor. Meeks should expect another steady diet of Jermaine Beal and George Drake, with Jeff Taylor and Lance Goulbourne waiting to help on the scoring machine. If Patterson cannot go, the Commodores should throw at least two defenders at Meeks on most possessions until another Kentucky scorer shows himself.
Turnover Battle – The Commodores shot themselves in the collective foot on Saturday, committing turnover after careless turnover against a tenacious Tennessee defense. In the final few minutes against Kentucky in Rupp, the ‘Dores forced the Wildcats into similar mistakes by increasing and extending their defensive pressure. Only Georgia has posted a worse turnover margin than Kentucky in SEC play, and the Cats rank among the nation's sloppiest teams, committing a turnover on nearly 25.0 percent of possessions according to Pomeroy. The Wildcats will commit their share of turnovers; if Vanderbilt can refrain from giving the ball back, the ‘Dores should be able to find enough offensive opportunities against a potentially Patterson-less Kentucky team.
Prediction: Without Patrick Patterson, the Wildcats don't pack the same punch on either end of the court. Even with the big man, though, the Commodores match up fairly well against their rivals from Lexington. Vanderbilt has the length on the perimeter to bother Meeks and the bulk inside to force Patterson to play defense on every possession. If the ‘Dores – especially Jermaine Beal – can recapture their efficiency from the three games prior to the debacle in Knoxville, they should be able to knock off the Cats in Memorial. It certainly won't be a 41-point margin, but any win will suit the men in gold just fine. Final Score: Vanderbilt 67, Kentucky 64.