Men's hoops: Vanderbilt-Kentucky preview

VeeMan previews Vanderbilt's Tuesday night matchup with Tubby Smith's Kentucky Wildcats. The Commodores (8-5, 1-1 in the SEC) entertain the No. 16 Wildcats (11-3, 2-0) at 8:00 p.m. in Memorial Gymnasium, in a game selected for national television by ESPN. It will be an opportunity for the Commodores to gain their second win over a ranked team in four days.

Apparently there is nothing wrong with the Vanderbilt Commodores that a little good shooting won't cure. A field goal percentage of 56.8 and a 13-8 performance from three-point range produced a 70-69 win over No. 4 Alabama on Saturday. In fact, only a series of desperate three-pointers by Maurice Williams kept the game so close in the last few minutes. With their shots going in, the whole Vanderbilt team performed confidently.

Matt Freije led the way with 19 points and Scott Hundley scored twelve.

The Kentucky Wildcats started conference play with a 74-71 win at Tennessee, followed by a 62-55 win at home over South Carolina. They have a record of 11-3, including non-conference victories over North Carolina(98-81 in Chapel Hill(, Indiana (70-64 in Louisville), two victories in the Maui Invitational, and a win at Tulane. The three losses were to Virginia (75-61 in Maui), Michigan State (71-67 in Lexington), and Louisville (81-63 in Louisville). 

Looking at the conference team statistics, it seems that Kentucky is better offensively than defensively. They are second in scoring and rank well in the shooting categories (third in overall field goals, fourth in three-pointers, and fourth in free-throw shooting). On the other hand, they are eleventh in points allowed, and twelfth in both field goal and three-point defense. The assist/turnover ratio is good, but rebounding is about average. Allowance should be made for the fact that Kentucky played a comparatively difficult non-conference schedule. 

6-5 senior Keith Bogans leads the team in scoring (17.7 ppg) and is knocking down 41.1% of his three-pointers. After a disappointing junior year, he is on track to have an excellent senior season. He leads the team in assists, steals, turnovers, and minutes played. 

6-3 junior Gerald Fitch plays almost as many minutes as Bogans, and is socring 11.6 ppg. Because he played point guard in the earlier games, he has not grabbed so many rebounds as in previous years. Next to Bogans, he is the main outside shooter (40% on three-pointers). 

Other guards are 6-5 junior transfer Antwain Barbour, 6-1 junior Cliff Hawkins, 6-5 sophomore Josh Carrier, 6-5 freshman Kelenna Azubuike, and 5-9 freshman Brandon Stockton. Barbour (3.5 ppg) suffered an injury early in the season and hasn't come close to being the difference-maker that he was expected to be. Hawkins (also 3.5 ppg) missed the first seven games because of academics, but is now playing about 25 minutes per game at the point. Azubuike (5.3 ppg) and Carrier (1.5 ppg) are good shooters but considered to be weak defenders. 

6-9 senior Marquis Estill is the mainstay inside. He scores 10.5 ppg and leads the team in blocks. However, 6-11 senior Jules Camara (7.9 ppg) may be the best interior defender. Thanks to the presence of Estill and Camara, Kentucky ranks third in the conference in blocked shots (behind Auburn and Vanderbilt). Estill hits over 60% of his shots from the field. 

Erik Daniels, 6-8 junior, missed four games, but has come on strong and is scoring 10.2 ppg. His 19-point performance against South Carolina easily led the team in that game. 6-6 sophomore Chuck Hayes (8.2 ppg) seems to be playing and scoring less as the season progresses. 6-9 freshman Bernard Cot‚ sees limited duty on the inside. 

Last year the Kentucky Wildcats earned the merited nickname of "Team Turmoil." Although the situation this season has been less chaotic, there have been hints that not all is well in the ranks. Camara is said to be in and out of Coach Tubby Smith's doghouse, and Azubuike and Carrier are rumored to be dissatisfied with playing time and may transfer after the season ends. Fitch was a powderkeg in 2001-02 and there is a danger that his instability might return. 

Kentucky is very good on some nights, but considerably less effective on others. On average, they are certainly a top-25 team, but clearly below the level to which Wildcat fans are accustomed. At times the offense can get bogged down and the defense is erratic. If the Commodores play as well against them as they did in the Alabama game, the Wildcats could have a rough night. 

The Kentucky mystique of invincibility against Vanderbilt was broken decisively in last year's 86-73 Commodore victory in Nashville. Although two of the three chief architects of that victory (Brendan Plavich, Chuck Moore) are no longer at Vanderbilt, the other players will remember their success and will go into the game expecting to win. Based on their national ranking, the Kentucky Wildcats have to be favored to win a very close game, but Commodore fans have good grounds to hope for victory.

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