Vanderbilt's win over Arkansas wasn't pretty, but it got the job done. After leading by 16 points with 10 minutes to play, the 'Dores went cold from the field and from the free throw line, letting Mike Anderson's team claw their way to within two in the final minute. Fortunately for the Commodores, Kedren Johnson stepped up to make a pair of huge shots from the charity stripe, and Arkansas ran out of gas before they could escape with a come-from-behind victory.
Thursday's game is more evidence that this team has improved throughout the 2012-2013 season. Vanderbilt, with a cadre of young and relatively inexperienced players, would have found a way to lose that game if it took place months earlier. While these Commodores still need to find a veteran leader to help them protect leads and provide guidance in the clutch, it's still encouraging to see them prop themselves up despite a total lack of momentum.
That said, John Calipari probably didn't lose much sleep last night after watching the Vandy/Arkansas game and waiting for his Friday opponent. Both teams were sloppy with the ball, deferred to too many bad jumpers, and lacked composure for long stretches. Kentucky, who is playing with the benefit of six days rest, has the scoring and athleticism to make Vanderbilt pay if they suffer through similar lapses. The Wildcats will be motivated after two tight battles with the 'Dores, and they're also playing while knowing that a loss on Friday could sink their NCAA Tournament hopes.
That knowledge should be just as motivating for a Vanderbilt team that is only playing for pride.
Vandy's two losses to Kentucky were both heartbreakers. The first came by way of a controversial Nerlens Noel jumper that appeared to come after the shot clock had expired. However, while many fans point to that as the dagger, they also forget that the Commodores had the ball with seven seconds left and the score at 60-58 and failed to get the basket they needed in front of a fired-up Memorial Gym crowd. The second saw another Vanderbilt rally fall short, as the 'Dores chipped a 13-point UK lead down to three with a minute to go, but had their offensive efforts erased by Willie Cauley-Stein as time ran out.
Now, they'll get the chance to not only extract revenge, but possibly keep this young Kentucky squad from the Big Dance by doing it. They'll have the benefit of a Nashville setting behind them, as well as any lingering momentum from last year's SEC Tournament win and the collective well-wishes of the six players from that Championship team who have moved on to basketball careers elsewhere. They'll also have the caucophonous chants of the Blue Bloods and the baffled questions of Bobby Knight's shot-clock soliloquy echoing in their ears from the last two times these teams met.
Vanderbilt will face some long odds on Friday, but they won't be short on motivation. They can scrap back to .500 at the tail end of their rebuilding season with a big win over a rival. They can erase some of the more painful memories of 2013 with a cathartic win at Bridgestone Arena. To do that, they'll need their veteran leaders to step up and make a stand. Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller came through for the 'Dores on Thursday; they'll need to be even better when Kentucky takes the court tonight.
Kentucky (21-10 overall, 12-6 SEC, Unranked)
Other Losses: vs. Duke, at Florida, at Louisville, at Notre Dame, vs. Baylor, at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M, at Georgia, at Arkansas, at Alabama
- Play from the inside out. Tennessee got off and running without relying on their three-point shooting, using it as a complementary piece of their offense while they explored the paint in Noel's absence. UT only attempted four threes in a runaway first half and used their shooting when the Vols collapsed to the interior to shield their newly-exposed weakness. This will be tricky for the Commodores to exploit - this team is driven by their three-point shooting - but Sheldon Jeter and Kedren Johnson each have the quickness to get into the lane and cause problems. If Vandy can couple that with Josh Henderson's soft touch around the rim then the 'Dores might be able to create an offensive advantage in the paint. However, Willie Cauley-Stein has grown as a defender since Nerlens Noel's absence, and Vandy may have to get creative to find a way to exploit his lack of experience.
- Get to the free throw line. Three Kentucky players, including Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, fouled out of the UT game. That helped send the Vols to the line 31 times and showed off this young team's propensity to get frustrated in tough situations. Vanderbilt hasn't had much success in getting to the line this year, and they certainly haven't been vikings when it comes to making free throws. Still, if Trae Golden and Kenny Hall can get to the charity stripe with regularity against these Wildcats then that means that Rod Odom, Jeter, and Johnson should be trying their best to get into the lane on Wednesday night.
- Play small. Jarnell Stokes was actually Tennessee's least efficient scorer against Kentucky, making just three of his 10 shot attempts. Meanwhile, five UT guards scored eight points or more and none of them shot less than 50 percent. This is a strategy that can fit into Vandy's small ball lineup, but they'll have to hope that UK hasn't plugged up the holes that sank their ship against the Vols last weekend.