Drink, drink, drink the pain away...
Last night's game was an ugly battle between two teams that couldn't find any offensive rhythm for forty minutes. Kentucky came out on top in the slop-fest, hanging on over the last three minutes with some clutch (and not-so-clutch) shooting and hard-nosed defense. While the pain from last night will linger for a while, there's still some comfort in the thought that 1.) this team is developing a formula to out-tough more talented teams and 2.) if all goes well, Vanderbilt will get to see the 'Cats twice more in bigger situations. Saturday's game was a major barometer for where the Commodores stand amongst the NCAA elite - and while there were a lot of negatives, the game also presented some building blocks for a pair of deep tournament runs in March.
John Jenkins just got taught a master class in NCAA basketball - Jenkins showed some major stones with his first three of the game, up-faking John Wall and then hitting a big shot with a hand in his face to cut UK's lead to 57-56. And then he tried the exact same move again...when the team only needed a two to win, and with an open Jermaine Beal to his left. We all know how this one ended, but Jenkins needed to get knocked down in order to build himself up stronger. The kid made a mistake that cost the team a chance to win the game, but he's still just a freshman. There are two paths he can take here; he can let this loss linger and eat away at his confidence, or he can learn from the mistake and become a better player. Jenkins came to Vanderbilt as a freshman, but his mindset has been about a year ahead of his physical age. Hopefully this mistake will push that on-court maturity even further.
- Festus and Steve did what the team needs them to do - Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang have limited roles right now - come off the bench, grab rebounds, play interior defense, and be tough. Despite fouling out, the two combined for nine points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes and played a major role in limiting DeMarcus Cousins and getting him in foul trouble. The two big men came in and did what they do best, and if they can cut down on their turnovers and fouls, they'll be the perfect frontcourt complements off the bench.
The Swagger-Three failed Vanderbilt - Jermaine Beal's step back threes have been an asset for the team, but last night we got to see how destructive they can be when they aren't falling. With the offense out of position, these shots clanged off the backboard and into Kentucky hands early in the shot clock. If he hits just one of these, the game unfolds differently; sadly, it wasn't meant to be. Kentucky's perimeter defense was prepared for Vanderbilt, and the team failed to adjust their shots accordingly when they couldn't get good looks from the perimeter.
The defense got it done - Kentucky shot just 35.8% for the night and was out-rebounded 37-29. Vanderbilt's big men failed to be backed down, and the guards shut down John Wall to just 3-11 shooting and one assist. With the exception of a few lapses that led to easy lay-ups, the team put together its best defensive effort to date against the highest level of competition they have faced.
- No one was immune from the sloppiness - Nearly everyone on the Commodore side made at least one mistake against Kentucky. Jeffery Taylor turned the ball over too much. Brad Tinsley took bad shots and missed them. Ditto for John Jenkins and Jermaine Beal. Festus Ezeli fouled out in six (!) minutes of play. Despite this, the Commodores had a chance to win this game as time expired. While part of the credit is due to home court advantage, you have to commend this squad's toughness and ability to stay in the game. If you had told any Vanderbilt fan that the team would shoot 2-20 from three-point range and only lose by two against the #2 ranked team, no one would have believed it. Despite the loss, the team proved that they'll be able to compete in a high-pressure situation, even if it's not pretty.
While today feels like hell for Commodores fans, last night's game showcased several reasons to be hopeful. The team remains a game up in the battle for the #2 slot in the SEC East and a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. With four regular season games to go, the team will have to take care of business and shut down a surging Florida to hold on to their position and boost their position for the NCAA Tournament. Saturday showed that this team can hang with the elite even when their shots aren't falling. If the team can match their offensive prowess with the defensive intensity they showed against Kentucky, then they should be able to run the table for the rest of the season and set up a SEC Tournament showdown with the Wildcats.