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The SEC's Worst Losses: No. 16 Kentucky (Part II)

Kentucky already has a win over Vanderbilt - but that was in Lexington. Can the Commodores defend their home court and move a step closer to the NCAA Tournament?

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt got a huge win when it toppled Florida on Tuesday. The Commodores can earn another resume-building victory on Saturday when they welcome No. 16 Kentucky to Memorial Gym.

The 'Dores lost to the Wildcats back on January 23rd when they failed to find a rhythm on the road. Vandy didn't lead for a single second as Kentucky struck out to an 11-point advantage, carried a double-digit lead for nearly 28 minutes, and gave a national television audience no real reason to tune in for the second half. The win furthered the narrative that Vanderbilt couldn't notch a quality win despite some prodigious talent on its roster.

Now, more than a month later, that narrative has changed. The Commodores earned a pair of big victories against Florida and Texas A&M. They'll come into Saturday's game on a two-game winning streak and with some newfound confidence after dropping a 13-point beating on the Gators in Gainesville. Damian Jones, who had a solid 13-point, nine rebound, two block performance in his first go-round with the Wildcats, is playing some of the best basketball of his college career in the build-up to Saturday's matchup:

67.74% 42.86% 9.2 1.2 1.2 0 2.8 1.8 18.6

That's what Jones has done in his past five games, and while the free throw shooting and his foul rate could be better, it would be tough for him to do more for the Commodores. Another big game could carry Vanderbilt from the shady side of the postseason bubble and into a rosy March matchup in the big dance.

What else can Vandy do to rally past the Wildcats? Here's the blueprint Tennessee laid nearly four weeks earlier.

Kentucky (21-7, 11-4 SEC, ranked No. 8 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)

Worst Loss: at Auburn, covered here.

Second worst loss: at Tennessee (13-15, 6-9 SEC, ranked No. 97 by KenPom and No. 117 in the CBS RPI), 77-84

Vanderbilt has blown a lot of leads this season, but not even the Commodores' come-from-ahead loss to Mississippi State can compare to Kentucky's epic bed crapping against the Volunteers back on February 2nd. The Wildcats led 34-13 early on before the Volunteers made a comeback that buried Kentucky and mired the team in the only losing streak of their 2015-16 season to date. Kevin Punter exploded for 27 points and 6'4 forward Armani Moore had 18 points and 13 rebounds in the upset win.

Point of emphasis: Pressure Kentucky's backcourt. When the Wildcats went cold, it was because their guards couldn't buy a basket in the game's final 25 minutes. Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, and Jamal Murray combined to shoot 12-37 (32.4%) over that span, giving the Volunteers the opening they needed to mount their impressive comeback. Wade Baldwin and Jeff Roberson have the defensive chops to hassle the 'Cats into a similar performance - but they'll have to get a similarly strong effort from Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, and Nolan Cressler to shut down UK.

Keys to the Game:

  • Get contributions from the bench. On Tuesday, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky despite getting very little production from its bench. The 'Dores got eight points from their non-starters, three of which game on a full-court heave from Josh Henderson. Tennessee, on the other hand, got 26 points - nearly 31 percent of its scoring output - from its bench. That's partially because Kyle Alexander and Devon Baulkman were mostly useless as starters, but the Vols proved that a balanced scoring load is important asset in beating the Wildcats.

  • Create contact...and finish your free throws. Tennessee got to the line 34 times against UK and sunk 30 of those shots. An 88 percent success rate at the charity stripe may be asking a bit much for a Commodore team whose offense will go through Damian Jones most of the afternoon, but a sloppy, grinding affair that puts Vanderbilt in the bonus early will play to the home team's advantage.

  • Pick your spots from three-point range. Tennessee is shooting 33 percent from behind the arc but made 42 percent of its three-pointers against Kentucky. The reason? The Vols were pickier in choosing their shots against UK. They averaged 23 three-pointers per game coming into their matchup but took only 19 against the Wildcats. Vanderbilt has much stronger three-point shooters and can afford to be less discriminating, but forcing shots - even if it worked on Tuesday - is a formula for defeat vs. Kentucky.