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The SEC's Worst Losses: Kentucky (Part II)

Last week, Tennessee served up a big-time beatdown to a shorthanded Kentucky squad. Can Vanderbilt follow their blueprint and defeat a Nerlens Noel-less Wildcat team in Lexington?

Yeah, that's pretty much how it went down.
Yeah, that's pretty much how it went down.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt hasn't been able to do much with momentum this season, but Wednesday presents this team with an excellent opportunity to use some.

The Commodores are trending upwards after a big home win over Texas A&M in which the Commodores shut down the guard-heavy Aggies en route to a 63-56 victory. Kentucky is going in the opposite direction. The Wildcats have lost two straight since losing center Nerlens Noel to a knee injury last week against Florida. In their last game, they were dismantled by a middling Tennessee team that ran out to a 35-12 lead en route to a 30-point win.

Without Noel, the 'Cats are going to have to rely on their other three touted freshman to deliver a stabilizing home win. Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, and Willie Cauley-Stein will have to step up in order to beat a Commodore team that was a controversial no-call away from defeating them in Nashville just a month earlier. They'll have to rebound from a disheartening performance in their last game - the three crumbled against UT when they combined for just 13 points on less than 30 percent shooting from the field.

Vanderbilt will have the ability to pressure Goodwin and Poythress thanks to their strong defense on the wings, but UK's length could ultimately give them problems in Lexington. The 'Dores are undersized in 2013, and though Josh Henderson and Shelby Moats have shown flashes as frontcourt players, they have struggled to keep up with stronger and faster forwards this season. Kentucky will be the more athletic team on the court Wednesday night, and that will put plenty of pressure on Vandy to come up with a game plan to stop them.

The Commodores have almost no postseason hopes right now, but they can deal a crushing blow to Kentucky's NCAA Tournament chances with a win. Can Vanderbilt follow Tennessee's lead to pull off the upset? Let's look at how the Vols routed UK last week.

Kentucky (17-8 overall, 8-4 SEC, Unranked)

Relevant Loss: at Tennessee (KenPom #72, CBS RPI #69) 58-88
Other Losses: vs. Duke, at Florida, at Louisville, at Notre Dame, vs. Baylor, at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M

The Wildcats don't have any losses to teams outside of the top 75 this season, but their 30-point curbstomping at the hands of Tennessee might as well count as one. The Vols ran out to a huge early lead and coasted to the finish line in a game that many CBS affiliates cut away from in the second half. UT big man Jarnell Stokes was held to just nine points in the win, while Kyle Wiltjer led the 'Cats in scoring with 18 points. Freshman sensations Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress combined for just 11 points on 13 shots.

Key to Destruction: Inside play. Tennessee out-rebounded UK 33-20 and only needed to take five three-pointers as they posted a 50-point first half and ran past the 'Cats. Nerlens Noel's absence in the paint was tangible. Willie Cauley-Stein, UK's other freshman big man, had more turnovers and fouls than points, rebounds, blocks, assists, and steals combined in just 23 minutes of play. For the day, Kentucky only pulled down nine of Tennessee's 21 misses and allowed the Volunteers to shoot 58 percent from the field.

Fortunately for Vanderbilt, much of this domination came from the backcourt. Commodore destroyer Stokes had just nine points and nine rebounds in the win while guards Trae Golden and Jordan McRae combined for 39 points on only 19 shots. If Vandy can seal up the paint inside and use players like Shelby Moats, Kevin Bright, and Josh Henderson to get rebounds then they can help set Kedren Johnson, Kyle Fuller, and Dai-Jon Parker up for a similarly explosive night.

Keys to the Game:
  • 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.
  • Get to the free throw line. Three Kentucky players, including Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, fouled out of Saturday's 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.