For the Commodores, the formula is simple: win Tuesday and you don't have to play next Thursday.
Vanderbilt will make the three-hour trek to Lexington to face Kentucky at Rupp Arena in a game that will have huge consequences in determining second place in the SEC East. If the 'Dores win, they'll have locked in that number two seed and a bye for the first game of the SEC Tournament. If they lose, they'll have to beat Florida on Saturday and hope for a UK loss at Tennessee to earn a coveted day off.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Kentucky is undefeated at home this season, and they'll have a raucous crowd behind them in their last home game of the 2010-2011 schedule. Vandy has been better on the road in the SEC this season than past years and currently have four wins, but three have been against RPI fodder Mississippi State, LSU, and Auburn. This showdown will be a huge matchup for both teams; for Kentucky, it's a chance to prove that they can still be considered elite. For Vanderbilt, it's an opportunity to show that they can win big games in hostile environments before the postseason arrives.
Two things will be working in the Commodores' favor Tuesday - the confidence of an 81-77 win just weeks earlier, and the fact that Kentucky has had some of the same problems finishing off mediocre opponents as Vandy. A recent loss at Arkansas helped cement the idea that the 'Cats have some mental weaknesses, and may give the 'Dores a blueprint for victory tomorrow night. Let's take a look at how the 'Hogs took down their fourth quality SEC opponent of the year.
Kentucky (20-8 (8-6 SEC), AP #22, ESPN #22)
Arkansas shocked the Wildcats (KenPom #9, CBS RPI #15) a day after Vanderbilt lost to Tennessee, wasting Kentucky's opportunity to pull into a tie for second place in the SEC East and placing even more importance on Tuesday's matchup in Lexington. Trailing by one point late in overtime, the Razorbacks picked off a lazy pass and finished the layup on the other head to secure a one-point lead that Kentucky couldn't overcome. The 'Cats got three chances at a game winning shot thanks to timely offensive rebounding, but Brandon Knight couldn't convert any of them, giving the underdog 'Hogs their biggest win of the season.
Key to Destruction: Bombs away. Kentucky shot themselves out of this game, connecting on just 3-19 three-pointers and undoing what was an otherwise efficient performance. The Wildcats shot with reckless abandon, even setting up a Brandon Knight three with eight seconds to play, the shot clock turned off, and the game tied at 70-70. When the shot missed, it gave Arkansas the extra life they needed - despite giving up offensive boards that would give UK several extra chances to end the game in regulation and OT.
Can the Commodores count on a repeat performance? It's not especially likely. This seems like an aberration on the road from a team with three starters that shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc. Still, Vanderbilt's three-point defense is one of the best in the SEC, and if they can badger the Wildcats into a funk, they're not going to stop shooting - even if the game is on the line and all they need is a two.
Keys to the Game:
- Keep Josh Harrellson off the glass. The forgotten big man amongst Kentucky's big three, Harrellson is a proficient basketball player who is capable of playing Festus Ezeli to a standstill. His ability to pull down offensive rebounds (six against Arkansas) and create additional scoring opportunities for the Wildcats makes him a dangerous piece of the UK offense. This will be Harrellson's final game at Rupp Arena and you can bet he'll be feeding off a frenzied crowd. Vanderbilt can't let him outplay the Ezeli/Tchiengang combination in the post, or else it'll be a long night for the Commodores.
- Defend the perimeter...or slide over and double Terrence Jones? Vanderbilt fans remember Terrence Jones - he put up 25 and nine against us two weeks ago and made fans across Nashville happy about the NBA Draft's early entrance provisions. Jones was a force on both ends against the Commodores, but had little impact offensively against Arkansas. Despite being undersized, the Razorbacks were able to contain him with aggressive double teams, made possible by UK's poor outside shooting, and limit him to just 10 points. At some point, Kevin Stallings will likely have to make a choice; double Jones inside and free up shooters beyond the arc, or take his chances with single coverage in the post. Foul trouble might end up dictating his decision for him, but my best guess is that we'll see zone early against UK's quicker guards.
- Take advantage of mistakes. Kentucky won't be as prone to the brainfarts they had last Wednesday on their home court, but this is still a young team whose go-to guys only have a partial season of NCAA experience. They make mistakes like throwing passes away with 16 seconds left in a one point contest, or missing five potential game-winning shots in one game. Despite their early-season troubles, the Commodores have a chance to be the more composed team in Rupp Arena when crunch time comes. They'll have to have their full roster available to get there, but Kevin Stallings's squad can prove their worth in a big way by winning a tough game in a hostile environment over the final two minutes.