1. Slow them down. The Cats love to run and have probably the best transition offense in the country. Freshman sensation and future lottery-if-not-#1 draft pick John Wall can accelerate from half court to the bucket in about 1 dribble, and Kentucky’s bigs can run the floor too. Vanderbilt is as athletically talented as we’ve ever seen, but letting UK get out and run is something that no team in the country can afford to do. Reason for hope: UT likes to play up-tempo too and Vandy’s D was up to the challenge. Avoiding turnovers is a must. In that vein, if Beal could play another 38 minutes with 0 turnovers like he did against the Vols, we’ve got a great chance. Also, given that Kentucky is built for dribble penetration and inside scoring more than sharpshooting, I expect to see CKS run a fair bit of zone. Regardless of the defensive set though, taking the air out of the ball (and out of the crowd) will be crucial.
2. Early buckets. This slow-starting bull-hockey has got to be nipped in the bud. Kentucky has basically four guys who can single-handedly rattle off 10 points in a minute and the Dores just can’t afford to go into a hostile place like Rupp Arena and start out cold like they’ve been trending.
3. Jeff Taylor. Where are the points going to come from? It is conceivable that between Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins, UK will make A.J. Ogilvy’s life very difficult in the paint. It’s also likely that after Wednesday’s performance in K’ville, Calipari will have his guards keying on Jermaine. In looking for scoring opportunities against Kentucky, I like the Jeff Taylor-Darius Miller matchup. Taylor has been consistently solid, but this would be a great time for him to have a breakout game. With solid passers like Walker, Tinsley, and Beal, we should be able to put Taylor in positions to make plays this afternoon against Miller, arguably the weakest in a chain of very strong links among the UK starters.
4. Tenacity on the boards. Vanderbilt’s recent statistical improvement in rebounding may be a bit deceptive given the significant size advantage we’ve had basically throughout conference play. That will change today as the Commies face the tallest (top-to-bottom) team in the nation. The ability to switch among Beal, Tinsley, Walker, and Taylor on the perimeter has made Vandy’s defense long and versatile, but Kentucky has the weapons and the size to neutralize that defensive advantage. Recall that Cousins scored 27 points in the loss to the Gamecocks – these guys can and will find ways to score. As a result, crashing boards and not allowing second chances will be essential if we’re going to rattle the confidence of a young team that has shown itself (not just against South Carolina but also in earlier games this season) susceptible to being mentally shaken. Kentucky is one of the most efficient scoring teams in the country, ranked #13 nationally and shooting 49.3% from the floor (fun fact: Vanderbilt is #7 overall in FG% at 49.8%). Denying second opportunities on those possessions where they do miss is an absolute must.
5. Three-point shooting. Kentucky is angry coming off their first loss of the season in Columbia. They’re looking to make a statement today in defense of their #1 ranking on ESPN in front of the entire country. Make no mistake: they will score points; they will go on runs. The key for Vanderbilt is to maintain the composure they’ve shown in recent games when Kentucky heats up, and look for ways to get guys open on the perimeter. No, the 3-ball has not been Vanderbilt’s live-or-die approach this year as in many past, but as we saw against UT, responding to big plays on the road with clutch threes is a potent recipe for keeping your team in the game. This responsibility does not fall to any one player, but I’m going to suggest that CKS should give John Jenkins a lot of opportunities today to find his stroke from behind the arc.
I could go on and on with other keys. Here are just three slightly lesser points of focus:
- Eric Bledsoe – Wall may get all the hype, but this kid can PLAY. His weakness: susceptible to turning the ball over when getting too cute on the offensive side. Tinsley and Beal need to HOUND him and Wall both.
- Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang – While I expect another big defensive effort from Andre Walker, he and A.J. will not be able to stop Patterson and Cousins by themselves. As deep as Kentucky goes, Vanderbilt needs its bench to go just as deep this afternoon.
- Free Throws – If it’s close at the end of the game, the Dores will not be able to get away with poor FT shooting the way they did in Tuscaloosa. Relax; focus; shoot.
That’s all I want to say. No single one of the above keys will be enough by itself to stop the Cats at home, and even all of them combined don’t guarantee a victory. But this is Vanderbilt’s chance to prove to the nation that we’ve arrived and are, as Jay Bilas says, a Top 15 team built for a deep NCAA tournament run. The road to 6-0 and breathing room at #1 in the SEC standings goes through Rupp. GO DORES.