Vanderbilt moved to 2-0 on their three game home stand with a hotly contested win over Alabama, but they'll face their stiffest test of the season when #18 Kentucky comes to town Saturday. The Wildcats swept the 'Dores last season and are 3-1 against Vandy's vaunted recruiting class of 2008. However, UK will be bringing an almost entirely new rotation to Nashville in what will be many key players' first game at Memorial Gym.
The Wildcats aren't exactly the powerhouse that many publications predicted they would be, but growing pains are the norm when dealing with such a young team. In true John Calipari fashion, Kentucky is driven by its freshman stars Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb. These three first-year players are averaging a combined 48.5 points per game this season.
However, Calipari's team is also surprisingly shallow, as the team's top six players average 25 minutes or more while the seventh player in the 'Cats rotation gets less than 10 minutes per game. Vanderbilt, conversely, has nine players averaging double-figure minutes per game - though this number is slightly skewed due to injuries. The teams have shared eight common opponents this season; Kentucky has gone 3-5 against these teams, while Vanderbilt is 5-3.
Kentucky (17-6 (5-4) AP #18, ESPN #18)
The Wildcats (KenPom #8, CBS RPI #12) have been vulnerable on the road in the SEC, losing four league games and winning only at South Carolina. Vanderbilt, conversely, is 4-1 at Memorial Gym against the SEC this season. However, Kentucky doesn't have a terrible loss on their record this season - the worst is either a close loss at Alabama or an even closer defeat in Oxford, Mississippi. Since Vandy has already handled Ole Miss, let's take a look at the latter.
Mississippi won their matchup with the 'Cats through Chris Warren's heroics. Trailing by one point and with time winding down, Warren rattled in a deep three-pointer to send the home crowd into conniptions. With only 2.9 seconds to recover, Kentucky couldn't pull off a miracle shot to earn the win.
Key to Destruction: Forcing turnovers. The Rebels were out-shot and out-rebounded throughout the game, but still managed more meaningful possessions on offense than UK thanks to a team effort on defense. The only thing that Ole Miss did exceptionally well against Kentucky was pestering ballhandlers and getting into passing lanes, forcing 18 turnovers and nabbing 11 steals. The Wildcats, conversely, only had three steals on the night, slowing their transition offense and limiting the impact of their team's athletic lineup. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt doesn't have the speed that Ole Miss has in the backcourt, so Jeffery Taylor and Rod Odom will have to be especially pesky to force UK into mistakes.
Keys to the Game
- Move the ball around - Ole Miss went on a 13-2 run midway through the second half that put Kentucky on the ropes, and much of their success was due to ball movement and tight defense. Every point that the Rebels scored on this break was either the result of an extra pass or a transition bucket coming off a turnover. Thirty percent of the team's assists for the game came during this 2:48 span. The possible return of Andre Walker could be a huge boost for Vandy's half-court offense - as well as their passing in general - if he can be effective in short minutes. His ability to run the offense and find open men in the paint are a major asset for the 'Dores.
- Stop Terrence Jones - Kentucky trailed by nine points with under six minutes left, but regained the lead fine minutes later before Warren's heroics won the game. How did the 'Cats battle back? On the back of Terrence Jones. Jones scored nine of the team's final 14 points and teamed with Doron Lamb to erase Ole Miss's lead. In fact, the Rebels were in position to win the game partially thanks to their defense on Jones in the final minute, which forced the ball to DeAndre Liggins for a UK jumper as the shot clock wound down. Jones is a beast but he can be a bit of a chucker, and if the 'Dores can limit his looks inside and make him hesitant to come into the paint, they'll be able to knock out one-third of Kentucky's potent attack.
- Use the team's balance - Ole Miss's final box score looks similar to a Vandy win, with four players scoring in double digits and a pair of players going for 16 points or more. The Rebels used a varied attack amongst their starters to open up a tidy lead in the second half, using Reginald Buckner, Chris Warren, and Zach Graham interchangeably in the team's key second half run. Kentucky struggled to identify where shots were coming from and were slow to defend thanks to the team's ball movement and varied attack over this stretch. If the Commodores can incorporate the entire starting five in the offense against the Wildcats, John Calipari is going to have a difficult night drawing up schemes on his whiteboard.