Vanderbilt has used their depth and shooting prowess to turn an 0-3 start to conference play into a .500 SEC record. Now, they can notch their first NCAA Tournament resume-building win of the season by taking down the league's big bad wolf when they travel to Lexington on Saturday.
The Commodores will face No. 23 Kentucky in a nationally televised showdown between the league's top two preseason picks. Vandy and UK were trendy choices to take down the league title and have two of the nation's most talented rosters, but both teams have had to deal with disappointment this season. Vanderbilt suffered through a 2-6 stretch that dropped them from an advantageous seed in the NCAAT and onto the ugly side of the selection committee's bubble. The Wildcats haven't had the same disastrous results the 'Dores have, but a 6-4 run pushed them from the top spot in the AP and Coaches' polls to a potential slip out of the top 25.
Vanderbilt's optimism-building run has come alongside flashes of greatness from center Damian Jones, but foul trouble has often stapled the team's best post scorer to the bench. He'll have to find a way to avoid the phantom calls that have haunted him throughout his junior season. That's a tall task for a game in Rupp Arena, where a sea of blue tends to sway the officials' whistles against the visiting team. Though Vandy can beat UK without a big contribution from Jones, their offense will run much more smoothly if they can get 30 minutes of entry passes and rim-bending dunks from him on Saturday afternoon.
No. 23 Kentucky (14-4, 4-2 SEC, ranked No. 26 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)
Worst Loss: at Auburn (9-8. 3-3 SEC No. 153 KenPom, No. 76 CBS RPI), 70-75
Other Losses: at UCLA, vs. Ohio State, at LSU
For the second game in a row, Vanderbilt faces a team who suffered the ignominious distinction of dropping an away game to Auburn. The Tigers had lost 18 straight games to Kentucky before they toppled the Wildcats despite trailing by as many as a dozen points in the second half. UK held a two-point lead with 1:33 to play, but Kareen Canty's and-1 layup ripped away that advantage and tilted the scale heavily in Auburn's favor. The Wildcats missed nearly all their big shots down the stretch while the Tigers calmly drained their free throws and recorded the biggest win of the Bruce Pearl era at Auburn Arena.
Point of emphasis: Force Kentucky's guards into bad shots. Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, and Jamal Murray made up the bulk of the Wildcat offense back on January 16th. It went poorly. The three players combined to shoot just 16-51 (31.3%) from the field. That includes a 3-9 stretch in the game's final six minutes, where Auburn turned a one-point deficit into a five-point victory. Backcourt defense has never been a Commodore strong point, but Wade Baldwin is a terrific man-up defender and Vanderbilt can stop anyone when their zone defense is running smoothly.
Keys to the Game: