The cold calculus of this contest shows that Vanderbilt is in prime position to get a firm grip on first place in the SEC East. Many pundits will look at this week's two games - the Wednesday victory over No. 14 Tennessee and this game at No. 1 Kentucky - and say the importance of these encounters has diminished due to the Vols' and Wildcats' losses to Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. The importance of beating two top 15 programs in one week, however, is something that cannot be minimized… especially not if VU slays Big Blue in front of a national ESPN television audience.
The past few weeks have been all about improving the Dores' NCAA Tournament resume. A win over Kentucky, however, would transport this program into an entirely different realm. A victory this Saturday wouldn't just make Vandy a virtual lock for the Big Dance; a triumph in "the old barn in the Bluegrass" would initiate discussions about a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament and a protected (top 4) seed come March Madness.
Okay, okay. We're getting way, way ahead of ourselves here, but that's what a win over Kentucky would do for the VU crew.
Looking back at Wednesday's knockout performance in Knoxville, Vandy was able to overcome its poor shooting early in the Tennessee game by punishing the Vols on the offensive boards. Even more impressive for the Commodores was the fact that they defeated Tennessee with little contribution for most of the game from center A.J. Ogilvy, who was hampered by foul trouble.
Jermaine Beal was the hero for Vanderbilt, scoring 25 points without a single turnover and going on a personal 8-0 run which made the Commodore lead virtually insurmountable in the second half. Beal was an impressive 4 for 6 on 3-pointers against UT, and is 10-22 from that range in his last four SEC games.
Yes, it would be nice for Coach Kevin Stallings's team to go into Lexington and beat a credentialed Kentucky club. Vanderbilt needs to go into Rupp Arena with the mindset that it still has the opportunity to knock off what is still the No. 1 rated team in America and take full control of first place in the SEC East. That is a nice scalp to have in your back pocket, especially when both Tennessee and Kentucky will have to visit Memorial Gym later in the year.
Vanderbilt, beware: If the Commodores think less of their opponent because the Cats lost at South Carolina earlier this week, Saturday's game will be a long afternoon.
So what do John Calipari's Wildcats look like?
The Wildcats began the week 19-0 and ranked No. 1 for the first time since 2003. Though Kentucky will still be ranked No. 1 when it takes the Rupp Arena court Saturday against the Commodores, that ranking is sure to change next week following its 68-62 upset loss at South Carolina.
Kentucky's margin for error has been thin all season long. The Wildcats nearly lost their second game of the year against Miami of Ohio on Nov. 16, winning on freshman phenom John Wall's buzzer-beating jump shot, 72-70. They then needed overtime to defeat Stanford in the Cancun Challenge, and had two- and three-point wins, respectively, over North Carolina and Connecticut.
Despite its 4-1 SEC record, Kentucky's wins have not come with ease, with the exception of the Arkansas game. The Wildcats struggled at home against Georgia, eventually winning by eight, and were tied with Florida with less than five minutes remaining. Auburn, despite being near the bottom of the conference, almost caught Kentucky sleeping, with the Wildcats pulling out a five-point victory.
Which brings us to the South Carolina loss.
Kentucky was riding high early in the week when President Obama called the Wildcats to congratulate them on their No. 1 ranking and to thank them for their fundraising for the Haiti earthquake relief effort. The Gamecocks had other plans, however, than rolling over for the lauded Cats and their large-living leader, coach John Calipari.
Kentucky's future NBA frontline of Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins combined for 20 rebounds, but the duo received no help from the rest of the Wildcats' frontcourt. South Carolina outrebounded Kentucky, 41-35. Patterson, who flirted with turning pro last off-season, was non-existent in the Kentucky offense. He took only four shots from the field and finished with five points.
The Cats could not find an answer for South Carolina guard Devan Downey, who scored 30 points, repeatedly earned trips to the foul line (where he was 10-11), and had half of SC's six assists. More important than the scoring itself, Downey and backcourt mate Brandis Raley-Ross forced Kentucky's freshman backcourt of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe into a combined nine turnovers.
Kentucky attacks teams offensively with Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense. Success in this offense is predicated on dribble penetration by Wall and Bledsoe and the ball is in their hands, rightfully so, the majority of the time. The offense calls for them to attack the basket and either feed Cousins or Patterson when their defenders leave to help on penetration, or to look for whichever guard is not driving to "drag and drop," spotting up for jump shots. Don't confuse the motion in this offense with the Bob Knight-style motion. Kentucky possessions do not feature much passing.
Vanderbilt will have to pick its poison defensively. Go with a man-to-man, and its hands will be full with containing Wall and Bledsoe on dribble penetration. Go zone and Vandy will find itself dealing with five Cats shooting better than 37 % from three.
Forward – Patrick Patterson – Junior, 6'9", 235; 2009-10: 15.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg,
Patterson briefly entered the NBA draft for a time after the firing of Billy Gillispie, but eventually withdrew his name and returned to Kentucky. Patterson is an incredible athlete, with a reputation for shot blocking and rebounding. Though his scoring average has gone down almost two points per game from a year ago, playing for Calipari has diversified his game. Patterson is no longer just a "catch and dunk" athlete who rarely shoots outside the post. He has even extended his game to the 3-point line where he has made 37 % of his 27 3-point shots. He will be a tough matchup for Andre Walker as he is two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. Patterson has become something of a forgotten man in the Kentucky offense; he has not had double-digit field goal attempts in the Wildcats' past three games. Patterson is the nominal leader of the Cats, but it is hard to lead when you are not the one regularly handling the basketball.
Forward– DeMarcus Cousins - Freshman 6'11", 260; 2009-10: 16.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg
Issues of attitude, work ethic, and the now-notorious elbow he threw in the Louisville game have unfortunately overshadowed Cousins's tremendous talent at times. That being said, he might be the best low post scorer in college basketball today. He's shooting 55 % from the field and a respectable 66 % from the foul line. Cousins is almost certain to be one of two Wildcats to be NBA lottery picks (with John Wall). If Vanderbilt plays straight man-to-man, A.J. Ogilvy will have his hands full matching up with Cousins. Cousins, however, is known to take plays off on the defensive end. Provided Ogilvy can keep out of foul trouble guarding Cousins, Ogilvy can use his low-post savvy to get good scoring looks and possibly get Cousins into foul trouble.
Guard – Darius Miller – Sophomore, 6'7", 223; 2009-10: 7.5 ppg, .425 3-point %
While the names of the other four Kentucky starters are almost instantly recognizable, Miller is easily forgotten. The Commodores need to be aware of him, though, as his 43 % 3-point accuracy rate demonstrates. His shooting has dropped off in SEC play: Except for going 4 of 6 from three against Arkansas, when he scored 18 points, he is 2 for 10 otherwise in the SEC on 3-pointers. Look for Vanderbilt to match up against Miller with Jeffery Taylor and use Taylor to double-team Patterson and Cousins in the post. Normally a coach would not choose to leave a 43 % 3-point shooter open, but that may be the best option on Saturday.
Guard – Eric Bledsoe – Freshman, 6'1", 190; 2009-10: 10.9 ppg, 3.3 apg .436 3P%
Usually a potential first-round pick is an opponent's defensive priority. Not so much when his backcourt teammate is John Wall. Do not be fooled by Bledsoe, however. Florida coach Billy Donovan believes Bledsoe to be "just as good a ball-handler" as Wall and maybe a better shooter. Bledsoe's shooting percentage agrees. The freshman from Birmingham, Ala., did struggle in the South Carolina game (2 for 7 shooting with five turnovers), but it wouldn't be wise to expect another down game for this frosh phenom. Should Jermaine Beal guard Bledsoe it will make for an interesting matchup, since Beal has four years of experience under his belt. Beal can use his veteran knowledge to force Bledsoe into turnovers; he's had 11 in the past two games.
Guard – John Wall – Freshman, 6'4", 195; 2009-10: 17.1 ppg, 6.6 apg, .375 3P%
What more needs to be said about Wall? He is everybody's All-American and will surely be the first pick in the NBA draft. John Calipari has said he "will wrestle" Wall should he try to come back to Lexington. Wall has been in double-digits in all but one game this season, and that game was a 43-point victory over Hartford. Vanderbilt can count on Wall having the ball in his hands most of the night. He has a tremendous ability to penetrate the defense off the dribble, with either hand, but should a defender lay off him, Wall does not hesitate to shoot the three. His 6'4" frame usually allows him to shoot over smaller perimeter defenders, but Vanderbilt is fortunate in that either of its starting guards, whether Beal or Brad Tinsley, are each 6'3". Wall, like Bledsoe, has a propensity for turnovers as well. In nine games he has had five turnovers or more. After all, he is still a freshman... at times.
If there is a glaring weakness on the Wildcats, it is their bench play. Kentucky just does not have a lot of depth with four starters playing 31 minutes or more against South Carolina. Darnell Dodson, a 6'7" sophomore, can stretch defenses, shooting 38 % on 3-pointers. He averages just less than seven points per game. DeAndre Liggins, despite his 6'6" frame, is more of a traditional guard off the bench and has been working his way into the rotation after missing the first nine games of the season.
Keys to the Game:
- Make Cousins play defense – Trying to stop Cousins from scoring is a thankless task, but he can be taken advantage of defensively. Should Vanderbilt get the ball inside to Ogilvy and Taylor, Cousins's tendency to play lackadaisical defense can result in easy baskets, not to mention foul trouble for Kentucky's star post player. As mentioned above, Kentucky does not have much depth, and getting Cousins out of the game gives Vandy the advantage in the post.
- Wear down the Wall – It will be interesting to see who guards Jermaine Beal for the Wildcats. Since Beal is 6'3", that task will probably be handed to Wall. Should that happen, Stallings would have the opportunity to run Wall off numerous screens and defend the Dores' shot-clock-consuming possessions. Wall has had a tendency to get cramps during games. Should that happen, it will free up Beal to get good looks at the basket, and he is hot after the Tennessee masterpiece. Wearing down Wall on defense would also hinder Wall's effectiveness attacking the Commodores in transition and on the dribble-drive motion offense Calipari employs.