Vanderbilt will have the opportunity to turn their season around with a defining win on Thursday night, but to get there they'll have to take down a talented Kentucky team that is clawing their way back towards the top 25.
The Wildcats put a stamp on a disappointing out-of-conference record by stomping Eastern Michigan 90-38 last week, and they'll look to make a similar statement against Vandy. Kentucky fell from grace after being voted in as the country's third-ranked team in the preseason. They've dropped four games on their way to a 9-4 start, but all have been against respectable competition. Losses against Duke and Louisville came against two of the top four programs in the NCAA as of January 8. Defeats to Notre Dame and Baylor were less illustrious, but still understandable.
That 9-4 record means that Kentucky has some work to do in the SEC. Not only will John Calipari be looking to add another win to his record, he'll also be looking to extract revenge over a Commodore team that upset the 'Cats in their last meeting in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship Game.
Unfortunately, Vanderbilt will suit up only one player who made any sort of significant impact in that game - point guard Kedren Johnson. The rest of the 'Dores are smack dab in the middle of a rebuilding effort that has seen this young team lose games to schools like Marist and Middle Tennessee. The odds will be squarely in UK's favor on Thursday night; so what can the Commodores do to upset Kentucky? They may be able to follow Baylor's blueprint to find success against a more talented Wildcat team.
Kentucky (9-4, unranked)
Baylor came to Rupp Arena and broke Kentucky's 55-game home winning streak when the came out on the happy side of a 64-55 beating in Lexington. The Bears held UK to just 29.6 percent shooting and won despite a 20-4 disparity when it came to offensive rebounding. Baylor led by only four points with five minutes to play, but Kentucky's lack of cohesion ended up dooming them as the Bears extended their lead as the Wildcats went 1-10 from the field to squash their comeback attempt.
Key to Destruction: Perimeter defense. This was the game that put Kentucky's outside shooting firmly in question for 2012-2013. Baylor was able to keep Kyle Wiltjer on a cold streak (1-9 3pt shooting) and prevent the Wildcats from stretching the floor. Julius Mays, UK's other three-point threat, was similarly off from behind the arc on a night were Kentucky went 4-22 from three-point range.
This may be more difficult for the Commodores on Thursday night. Wiltjer has recovered his shooting stroke and freshman standout Archie Goodwin is playing with more confidence in his outside shooting than he had earlier in the season. However, perimeter defense should be one area where the Commodores excel. Kedren Johnson, Dai-Jon Parker, and Kyle Fuller all bring different defensive assets to the table and should be able to limit UK's open looks from long range. Still, Vandy is a young team, and there's a chance that they get worked by a complex screen-and-pass operation from Calipari's playbook.
Keys to the Game:
- Limit Nerlens Noel. Baylor didn't have an answer for Noel's size on the glass (16 rebounds), but their defensive rotations were able to limit him to just eight points and a disappointing 3-14 shooting line. That's going to be very tough for a Commodore team that is light on big men. Josh Henderson will have his hands full at the five, but good help defense - something that Sheldon Jeter, Shelby Moats, and James Siakam can all be effective with - could rattle the freshman in a hostile environment.
- Extend that defense past the three-point line. Kentucky doesn't have a great shooting team in '12-13, but Wiltjer and Mays are their go-to players when it comes to stretching the floor. Both are streaky players who can be thrown off their game with physical defense. The Commodores will have to bow up on the perimeter to keep the Wildcats from establishing their shooters around the arc.
- Test Kentucky's depth. Once again, Coach Calipari is running with a rotation that only goes seven players deep. Kentucky is very talented, but if the Commodores can lean on the inexperience on their bench then they'll be able to create mismatches late in the game. Baylor had some limited success with this, fouling out Archie Goodwin (but after 37 minutes) and putting Willie Cauley-Stein in foul trouble. This is a tall order for Vanderbilt - they don't have a player like Jeffery Taylor who could draw fouls in the paint effectively. Instead, they'll have to hope to use a backcourt filled with plus athletes to wear the Wildcats down.