Ask yourself this, Vandy fans: If you had known before Thursday night's game that Ole Miss was going to hit its first four 3-point shots; Jermaine Beal would be held scoreless until the second half; and the Commodores would be down by double-digits early, would you have expected a Vanderbilt victory?
Fortunately, VU is putting into practice nearly all of the elements that create a successful tournament run, and we're not talking about the SEC Tournament, either.
The first component of VU's emerging tournament toughness can be found in the fact that coach Kevin Stallings' team is continuing to attack the basket. While some might see a lack of scoring balance when A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor combined to score the first 21 Vanderbilt points, this development can and should be viewed as a product of aggressiveness. The Dores are regularly putting opponents in situations where they pick up early fouls. Opposing post players do not pick up fouls when a team shoots a 3-pointer after one pass, and that is something to consider when the next opposing big man for the VU crew is a young freshman by the name of DeMarcus Cousins.
Speaking of opponents' fouls, another sign of a successful tournament team is "making more free throws than your opponents take," as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski frequently says. Now, you can insert your own Duke home-court advantage joke if you want, but there is certainly a lot of truth in that statement. The Commodores bear that truth out, especially when they have shot over 100 free throws in their past three games.
Vanderbilt is not perfect. Dribble penetration against a zone defense was non-existent against Ole Miss, and the failure of the post players to hedge when their man was screening for a guard will be a huge problem Saturday if it is not rectified.
Speaking of Saturday, let's take a look at those Wildcats and set up what is potentially the SEC's regular-season championship game.
Kentucky has been on a roll since beating Vanderbilt 85-72 on Jan. 30. The Cats returned to the court three days later and beat Ole Miss by 10, and then put the wood to last-place LSU, 81-55. After beating Alabama, Kentucky pulled away midway through the second half against Tennessee.
And then came the Scare in Starkville.
It was Vandy's worst nightmare for a while. Every Commodore fan, remembering the focus Kentucky played with against VU after an upset loss at South Carolina, had to be hoping the Cats would pull out the win over MSU. Somehow, they did.
Kentucky was down seven with three minutes to go in regulation at Humphrey Coliseum. However, the Kentucky defense held the Bulldogs scoreless for the rest of regulation. Reserve guard DeAndre Liggins kicked off the late rally with a 3-pointer and Eric Bledsoe followed up a Patrick Patterson block with a layup. After another stop, Patterson made a jump shot to tie the game at 67.
The overtime was more in tune with the season-long John Wall show that's been playing in theaters (or gymnasiums) around the country. The freshman sensation scored five points to give Kentucky its final lead. Defensively, Wall had two steals and a block. Not a bad night's work in five minutes of bonus basketball.
Kentucky frequently finds itself in close ballgames due to its youth. If inexperience does not cost the Cats Saturday, as it did in South Carolina a month ago, it may bite Big Blue somewhere along the line come tournament time. While certainly talented, Kentucky often displays poor shot selection and its problems with turning the basketball over are well documented.
But do not forget how talented this team is. There are potentially four NBA first-rounders in the starting lineup, two of whom might be back-to-back at the top of the draft, Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Everyone in the lineup can defend at the highest level, whether that means ball pressure, rebounding, or blocking shots inside. Mr. Ogilvy can certainly attest to the strength of Kentucky's interior defense.
Kentucky attacks teams offensively with Coach John Calipari's "Dribble-Drive Motion Offense." As mentioned in the first preview of the Wildcats, success in this offense is predicated upon dribble penetration by Wall and Bledsoe. The ball is in the hands of the lead guards most 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 the penetration, or to look for whichever guard is not driving to "drag and drop," spotting up for jump shots on the wing.
Vanderbilt, as was the case in Lexington, will have its hands full defensively. Man-to-man defense is hard to play against Kentucky because to do so effectively, you must first prevent the dribble penetration of Wall and Bledsoe but also double Cousins in the post. That is a tall tandem of tasks for any team. Zone is not a great option, either. Go zone, and Kentucky has five players who can consistently make you pay from the parking lot.
Forward – Patrick Patterson – Junior, 6'9", 235; 2009-10: 14.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg,
Though he is only a junior, it feels like Patterson has been at Kentucky forever. He is often looked upon by coach John Calipari and the UK staff to be the Wildcats' leader on the floor. When he faced Vanderbilt the first time, however, he was in the middle of a stretch of games when he did not get double-digit shot attempts. It's hard to lead on the hardwood when you do not have the ball. Patterson has seen his attempts increase since he scored 12 points in the Jan. 30 win over the Commodores. Patterson was particularly effective against Mississippi State. He scored 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, adding 10 rebounds as well.
It should be noted that Patterson returned to Lexington after briefly declaring for the NBA Draft. Part of his reasoning was to expand his abilities under Calipari, particularly with respect to his shooting range. He has certainly demonstrated improvement for any scout watching: He now shoots 41 % on 3-pointers. His newfound talent was exemplified in the MSU game, when drained a mid-range jump shot to tie up the game in the final minute in Starkville.
Forward– DeMarcus Cousins - Freshman 6'11", 260; 2009-10: 16.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg
While Cousins' name was infamous early in the season for issues related to attitude, he is now so well thought of that many commentators are cautiously calling him the best freshman on the Kentucky team. That's quite a compliment considering that point guard with the last name of Wall. Except for an off night against Tennessee when he scored only five points, Cousins has been held to less than 16 points only once, a 13-point outing at Florida on Jan. 12. He has established himself as one of the best low-post scorers in college basketball. His 55 % shooting average from the field offers good supporting evidence for that claim.
Cousins still takes plays off on the defensive side (what freshman doesn't?), but he has pulled down double-digit rebounds every time since Jan. 12, a stretch of nine games. Vanderbilt will have to double-team Cousins when he catches on the block. The problem, as most astute Commodore fans know, is that this maneuver was tried repeatedly by Stallings in Lexington, and Cousins finished the game with 21 points anyway. Even scarier for teams facing Cousins is the fact that he has now learned the art of passing out of the double-team. With UK's array of shooters on the floor, Cousins will be even more dangerous if VU is slow on its defensive rotations. Expect him to be a top-five NBA Draft pick, if not one of the top two with Wall.
Guard – Darnell Dodson –Sophomore, 6'7", 215; 2009-10: 7.0 ppg, .381 3PT %
Dodson moved into the Kentucky starting lineup in the previous Vanderbilt game. Many VU fans probably found themselves asking, "Who is this other guy hitting all these shots?" Dodson, as you remember, scored 16 in the first meeting, going 2 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc, and he brought down seven rebounds as well. When Dodson is hitting his shots, he makes the Wildcats nearly impossible to defend. He is their "worst" starter, but when the opponent defending him is used to either double Cousins in the post or trap Wall on the perimeter, he has the talent to repeatedly knock down jumper after jumper and cause the opponent to rethink that strategy.
Guard – Eric Bledsoe – Freshman, 6'1", 190; 2009-10: 10.8 ppg, 3.3 apg .385 3PT %
The other star freshman guard in the Wildcats' lineup, Bledsoe actually did not start in the first meeting with the Dores. He made Calipari rethink that decision, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven rebounds. He then followed up that performance with a seven- assist showing against Ole Miss. Though Bledsoe's scoring has slightly gone down since Jan. 30, he was one of the stars against Tennessee. His 16 points were second best on the team behind Wall; he shot 50 % from three; and he dished out four assists compared to only one turnover. Whereas turnovers had plagued his game earlier in the SEC schedule, his last two games are an indication Bledsoe may have matured in his ability to protect the basketball.
Guard – John Wall – Freshman, 6'4", 195; 2009-10: 17.1 ppg, 6.6 apg, .375 3PT %
Wall continues to be the "Wonder Freshman." Already the leading scorer on a very talented Wildcat roster, Wall has been even better in the past three games, averaging slightly over 21 points per game. He was at his finest in Kentucky's pressure-packed OT victory at Mississippi State. Of his 18 points, five came in overtime. He was also two assists from reaching a triple-double, as he dropped eight dimes while hauling in 10 rebounds. Though he is only a freshman, he has become the Wildcats' on-floor leader.
His poise was demonstrated against the Bulldogs. In the final three minutes of regulation (with his team down by seven) and through the overtime period, Wall was at his finest. Wall is especially deadly when he is penetrating a defense, causing the help defenders to collapse and freeing up either Cousins or Patterson inside or – in other instances – one of UK's wing shooters for open looks. Wall is admittedly still careless with the basketball. He had seven against Vandy earlier this year. However, his talent so easily overcomes the mistakes he makes; he's a dominant figure despite his occasional lapses.
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 in that SEC stumble South Carolina a few weeks ago. DeAndre Liggins, despite his 6'6" frame, is more of a traditional guard off the bench and he has improved significantly as the year has gone on. He shoots 48 % from three so he is one more shooter for VU to be aware of. Darius Miller, who started against Vandy in the first game, is another guard who scores over six points per game.
Keys to the Game
- Get Cousins in foul trouble. To be blunt, Vanderbilt does not have the personnel to match up with Cousins. A.J. Ogilvy is one of the best and most fundamentally sound post players in the country, but he does not have the athleticism to guard Cousins. Others off the bench are better athletes, but Ogilvy needs to be on the floor for his offense. So what should Kevin Stallings do? Since VU is playing at home; leads the conference in getting to the foul line; and as at its best offensively when the offense runs through the post, the Dores coaches should go right at Cousins. Kentucky becomes very human when Cousins is on the bench and it allows for better defensive matchups, without having to always double-team the post. Should Cousins pick up a couple of early fouls, expect the game to swing in Vandy's favor.
- Wear down the Wall. Vanderbilt needed to do this in the first game, but being down by so much so early on removed any opportunity for the Commodores to do this effectively. Should this game start off a little more even, expect to see Vanderbilt make Wall work on the defensive end. By running his man of numerous screens and driving at him late in the shot clock, Vandy could force Kentucky's young guard to hit a Wall in the late going, and – as a result – benefit from some of those careless Wall turnovers in key situations.
- Memorial Gym Effect – While Commodore fans are used to the oddities of Memorial Gym, such as the baseline team benches, it will be something completely new for Kentucky's freshmen backcourt. When the ball tips basketball is basketball, but it could lead to a couple of turnovers, or missed signals from the bench that are easily seen in a more normal setting.