Very few people are giving Vanderbilt a chance against Kentucky on Saturday. Fortunately the Commodores have a blueprint to follow to get the better of Big Blue - their own.
The Commodores gave the Wildcats one of their biggest scares in SEC play two weeks ago, storming back from a 14-point deficit to hold a lead with under four minutes to play. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, Kentucky's clampdown defense held strong in the final minutes, preventing the 'Dores from scoring and holding on for a 69-63 win at Memorial Gym. While the loss stung, it was an encouraging performance that showed off the team's heart and gave fans hope for the team's postseason chances.
The first half of that matchup suggested another Kentucky blowout. Vanderbilt couldn't move the ball effectively, settled for contested jumpers, and struggled to keep UK away from the rim. So what did Vanderbilt do right to get back in the game?
Shifted Ezeli back from Option 1. Vandy came out early with an agenda to get Festus Ezeli a touch in the paint on every possession. John Calipari was ready for it. His Wildcats swarmed with defenders and made Ezeli's job against defensive stalwart Anthony Davis even tougher. The pressure clearly rattled the big man - he shot only 2-7 from the field, committed three turnovers, and missed all three of his free throw attempts in the first half.
Vanderbilt's offense spread the floor better in the second half behind efficient shooting, and this allowed Ezeli to impact the game in a more organic fashion. Rather than forcing the ball to him, Brad Tinsley and Kedren Johnson were allowed to hit him when opportunities arose rather than as the result of a game plan. The difference was significant - Ezeli put up nine points in the second half on five shots and changed the complexion of this team's offense. As Festus gets into the flow of the game, he opens up opportunities for others, whether it's on the perimeter or driving to the hoop. If Vanderbilt can harness that without forcing the ball to him and allowing turnovers, then they'll have the efficiency to beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Gave Jeffery Taylor the ball on the perimeter and the green light to improvise. Taylor only attempted three shots in the first half and seemed due to slide into one of his custom funks after some early fouls. However, he got hot in the second half as the Commodores gave him the green light to isolate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing and work from there. Taylor used screens effectively to set up three-pointers and used his athletic ability to get into the paint and get to the rim during a stretch where he shed the timidity that marred his first half. It was his spark that set off Vandy's 25-12 run that knotted the game at 48 all.
Had John Jenkins pick his shots. John Jenkins wants nothing more than to shoot this team to victory. When other players make 30-foot threes, he feels obligated to answer with a 30-footer of his own. The kid wants the ball in his hands as a scorer at all times, and as one of the best shooters in the NCAA, that's usually a good thing for Vanderbilt.
However, that can backfire against a strong defensive team like Kentucky. The Wildcats forced Jenkins to create the offense throughout the first half, luring the junior into contested threes and low-percentage shots for much of the night. Though these shots are less frustrating when a sniper like Jenkins is taking them, they're still a ragged path to victory.
JJ was much more effective in the second half when Vandy's other options were scoring and reducing the pressing defense he faced on the perimeter. When he works inside the flow of Vanderbilt's offense like that, he's one of the most dangerous weapons in the NCAA. When he's forced to create his own shot - mostly a step back three - he can struggle. Jenkins is a top scorer, but he's not a true #1 guy. He needs his teammates to ease some of the pressure to play his best basketball. If Ezeli and Taylor can provide that, they'll give the flamethrower clearance to torch the 'Cats.
Forced Kentucky to shoot by bowing up on the interior. UK scored 30 of their 36 first-half points at the rim or at the free throw line, using their athleticism to get past the perimeter and then crisp passing to finish off plays if the defense adjusted in time to stop the drive. As a result, the 'Cats shot 55 percent and took a 13-point lead into the half.
Vanderbilt changed up their strategy to tighten up their interior defense and allow Kentucky to pick their shots from long range. The Wildcats struggled to make those shots and their shooting percentage dropped to 41.4 in the second frame. This was an important adjustment that helped get Vandy back in this game. Containing scoring in the paint against Davis and Terrence Jones is a tough task, but it's one that the 'Dores will have to undertake to come out of Lexington with a win.
These aspects all hinge on this team's brightest stars, and that's no coincidence. Vanderbilt will need all three of their potential first-round draft picks to have high-level performances to get past the #1 ranked team on the road. However, they'll still need help from the rest of this team, particularly in areas where the 'Dores struggled weeks ago. Namely:
Lance Goulbourne needs his swagger back. Terrance Jones stole Lance's soul in their last meeting, putting up his best performance of the season to date while holding Goulbourne to one of his worst. The senior was 1-9 from the field and singlehandedly dropped the team's shooting percentage under 40 percent. A big performance against UK would be an exclamation point on a breakout season for the forward. However, he'll have to erase any demons that will come with facing an opponent who thoroughly handled him two weeks earlier.
The bench needs to show up. Maybe it's unfair to expect much of freshmen like Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson in their first trip to Rupp Arena, but Vanderbilt is going to need their youngsters to provide quality minutes in relief on Saturday. Johnson, Parker, and Rod Odom combined for 21 scoreless minutes against the Wildcats in their last meeting, and while their wallflower performance didn't necessarily hurt the Commodores, it didn't add much either.
Vanderbilt has a deeper team than Kentucky, and they need to use this advantage to keep their starters fresh. Parker and Johnson also have the chance to provide a defensive spark against players like Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague. This doesn't mean that these guys should be putting up threes in traffic, but it would be nice to see Odom fighting for rebounds in traffic, Johnson using his court vision to create easy baskets, and Parker clinging to opponents on the Vanderbilt end of the court. These guys are an X factor that this team could really benefit from. Unfortunately, they haven't really made their presence felt this season. Saturday would be a great place to start.
So can the Commodores pull off the biggest win of their season and bump themselves up a line in the NCAA Tournament seeding curve? They have the talent and cohesion to pull it off, but it's going to take a team effort. The only guy who can do it on his own offensively is Jeffery Taylor, and his recent slump could limit his ability to dial up terror mode. However, Festus Ezeli and John Jenkins both thrive when their teammates create opportunities for them. If the Commodores can come up with a balanced attack, they'll open up shots for their best scorers and relieve some of the pressure from Taylor's shoulders.
If this team plays loose and has fun out there, they can win. If not, expect a lot of forced threes and frustrated grimaces across the court. Vandy needs everyone to show up for this team from here on out, and if these guys can't do it after playing together for years, it may be time to adjust our expectations.