Well, thanks South Carolina. Without your heroic efforts I would have had no material for this column. And now, instead of the opportunity to beat an undefeated team that would have been next week's unquestioned #1, we draw a top-five team facing major questions about how their young talent will respond to a loss. While a Vandy win would still be huge, it wouldn't have the same resonance that it would have had at this time last week. But, on the plus side, I have the material to write a column, rather than just posting this picture when talking about Kentucky's worst loss.
Some estimates put the Wildcats around #4 in the country after their loss to South Carolina, behind Kansas, Villanova, and Syracuse. Along with Michigan State and Texas, these six teams have made up the elite tier of college basketball teams so far, but Kentucky's inclusion comes with a major question mark - their youth. Only one Wildcat regular is an upperclassman - junior Patrick Patterson. Patterson is also the only rotation player to have played in a NCAA Tournament game. The team is laden with freshmen who are playing on a big stage for the first time and sophomores whose experience is stunted by last year's failures with Billy Gillispie. This leads to a legitimate question: how will these guys respond to adversity in big-time pressure situations?
Early season wins versus North Carolina and Connecticut seemed to answer that question, but now look less impressive in light of the precipitous drops those two teams have experienced. However, it's tough to argue against a 19-1 record and the sheer level of talent these 'Cats present.
Kentucky (19-1, AP #1, Coaches #1)
This was a sloppy, sloppy game. Both teams shot under 40% (UK: 38.6%, USC: 34.4%) and were terrible from beyond the arc (25% each). Devan Downey gets all the credit for stepping up in crunch time to put the 'Cats away, but they would have been long buried if he could score efficiently. Downey scored 30 points on 29 shots, for a whopping 1.03 point per shot average. In comparison, Jeffery Taylor had a 2.57 PPS average vs. Auburn. There wasn't one aspect where either team dominated, but South Carolina earned the edge by A) hitting big shots when they mattered most and B) converting turnovers into scoring attempts.
Key to Destruction: One of the Gamecock keys to success was their ability to stop Patrick Patterson. Patterson finished with five points and eight rebounds, and had an impact similar to the one Wayne Chism had against the 'Dores Wednesday. SC also hounded PG sensation John Wall into an inefficient game (19 points on 16 shots), which was a key factor in the final outcome. While DeMarcus Cousins still put up huge numbers, he can't win the game on his own. If the Commodores can limit two of UK's top three (Patterson, Wall, Cousins), they can win this game. Fortunately, Patterson and Cousins will draw coverage against our big men - A.J. Ogilvy, Festus Ezeli, Andre Walker, and Steve Tchiengang. These four make up the heart of a very tough interior defense, and should have more of an effect than South Carolina's smaller frontcourt had.
Let's face it, UK is too talented to shut down everyone on their team - even if Jermaine Beal swaggers his way past John Wall, then a player like Eric Bledsoe can step up. However, Vanderbilt has the defense to limit some of their key players, and South Carolina proved that that is enough to win. If they can clip the Wall/Cousins/Patterson combination and play efficiently on offensive, they can come away with a victory.
Keys to the Game:
- Limit two of Wall/Cousins/Patterson triad on offense. Someone in this group is going to drop 20 or more on the Commodores. As long as it's just one, Vanderbilt can maintain control.
- Shoot efficiently, and use the shot clock to set up plays. Devan Downey proved you can win a close game at home playing sloppily, but it seems unlikely that formula would work in Rupp Arena.
- Keep the frontcourt rotation fresh to keep Cousins/Patterson out of the paint. Ogilvy, Walker, Tchiengang, and Ezeli all have different styles defensively, but utilize their strengths well. Combined, they should be able to pull down 18 rebounds with 5-6 blocks and a few steals while denying UK the ball inside.