Men's Hoops: Kentucky game preview

VeeMan analyzes Vanderbilt's Wednesday night road game at No. 2 Kentucky. The Commodores (10-15, 3-11 SEC) will attempt to hand the Wildcats (24-3, 14-0) their first conference loss of the season. Tipoff is set for 7:00 p.m. CST, 8:00 EST at Rupp Arena in Lexington (Jefferson-Pilot TV, 95.5 WSM-FM).

Vanderbilt lost for the seventh consecutive time last Saturday, to South Carolina on the road, and is now assured a No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament.  The Commodores stayed in the game for over 25 minutes of play and decisively out-rebounded the Gamecocks, but 20 turnovers were a decisive factor in the 76-64 loss.  As usual, Matt Freije was the top scorer with 22 points, and Brian Thornton added 13 points and nine rebounds.

Vanderbilt now faces its most difficult game of the season, combined with its jinx of never having won in Rupp Arena since it opened in the 1977-78 season.  The Kentucky Wildcats have won 18 consecutive games since losing to Louisville on Dec. 28.  In conference play they have a 14-0 record.  On Jan. 14 they defeated the Commodores 74-52 in Nashville after falling behind 25-11 in the early going.  Their comeback in that game is generally credited with giving them momentum that has continued to the present.

6-5 senior wing man Keith Bogans is the leading scorer (16.2 ppg).  After a disappointing junior year, he has come back to play consistently in all phases of the game, including a 38.4% shooting percentage from three-point range.  He is second on the team in assists and finds time to grab 3.7 rebounds per game.  He is certain to be a first-team all-conference selection.

6-3 junior Gerald Fitch (12.3 ppg) has divided his time between point and shooting guard.  He is not getting the rebounds of previous years, but is making 39.8% of his threes and is a tenacious defender.  6-9 senior Marquis Estill (10.9 ppg) is second in rebounding (5.7 per game), and with his very long arms blocks and alters a great many shots when opposing teams get the ball in the vicinity of the basket.

The other two starters are 6-8 junior Erik Daniels (9.5 ppg) and 6-6 sophomore Chuck Hayes (9.1 ppg).  Hayes is the top rebounder, with 6.7 per game, and Daniels averages 5.3 rebounds.  Both of them have played major roles in the success of the 2002-03 Wildcats.

6-1 junior Cliff Hawkins is the top defender on a team that plays outstanding defense.  He plays about 20 minutes per game and has averaged 6.2 points since missing the first seven games of the season for academic reasons.

Another formidable defender is 6-11 senior Jules Camara, whose long arms give the opposition many problems in trying to get off shots.  He averages 7 ppg and 3.5 rebounds.

The only other Kentucky players who have seen significant time during the winning streak are 6-5 junior Antwain Barbour and 6-5 freshman Kelenna Azibuike, both of whom are scoring 3.5 ppg.  Barbour was expected to start this year, but hasn't been nearly the factor that he was anticipated to be.  Azibuike's defensive play is not yet up to Wildcat standards.

Three other players who might see limited time, especially in the late minutes if the Wildcats get a decisive lead, are 6-5 sophomore Josh Carrier, 6-9 freshman Bernard Cot, and 5-9 freshman Brandon Stockton.  The Wildcats also have three walk-on players who get into a few games.

Perhaps the best hope for Vanderbilt to pull a surprise is if Kentucky is looking past this game to the meeting with Florida in Gainesville next Saturday.  On the other hand, this will be senior night in Rupp Arena, and Bogans, Estill, and Camara will be playing their last game there.

The Vanderbilt Commodores have played their best ball against tougher opponents.  If the shots drop, and they don't collapse (as they did before) in the face of Kentucky's tough defensive pressure, they could make it a good game.  However, Kentucky has been defeating conference opponents consistently by double-digit margins, and one can only predict a victory for the Wildcats, probably by a 10-20 point margin.  A Vanderbilt victory would be the SEC's biggest upset of the year.

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