While there is some debate as to whether or not this is the biggest game at Memorial Gym in recent memory, there is no disputing that tomorrow evening's match-up with the #2 Kentucky Wildcats is huge. What's at stake? In the short-term, the SEC Regular Season Championship. If the Commodores win, they will be tied with Kentucky for first in the SEC East at 10-2. Given the respective schedules down the stretch (UK hosts South Carolina, travels to UT and UGA, and ends the season with UF in Lexington; while Vanderbilt hosts UGA, travels to Arkansas and Gainesville, and winds up the year against South Carolina at Memorial), and the way the SEC Tiebreaker works, if Vanderbilt wins, the SEC East Crown is very much up for grabs game (and if the Vols can knock of the Cats in Knoxville, the Commodores have the advantage). Of course, all this depends on winning tomorrow.
Their Last Meeting
Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 85-72 the last team these squads faced off in Lexington in late January. In many respects, the game was closer than the final score reflects, yet never a game Vanderbilt had a chance to win.
The Wildcats started off the game red-hot. They outscored the Commodores 49-34 in the first half after shooting 60% from the field, and 7-12 from downtown (58%). A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor each picked up 2 fouls and only played 10 and 12 minutes respectively and scored just 9 points between the two of them. DeMarcus Cousins was a force of nature, scoring 13 points, while Patrick Patterson added 6. Not to say that 15 points is close, but it could have been much worse at UK shot better than 12-21 from the charity stripe.
The Commodores (save Jermaine Beal) didn't play well in 1st half. As a team, the Commodores shot 40% from the field, and 44% from downtown. It's worth mentioning that Dolla was 4-5 from downtown and 4-8 overall. The rest of the team was 0-4 from 3, while just 6-17 from the field (36%). UK got 9 second chance points, scored 7 points off Vanderbilt turnovers, and got 16 points from their bench. By comparison, Vanderbilt scored 0 second chance points, scored just 3 points of 8 UK turnovers, and got just 3 points from the bench. Need I go on?
The second half was better. Vanderbilt actually outscored the Cats 38-36 and shot better from the field than than the Wildcats (57% compared to 31%). The Commodores continued to struggle from downtown (1-6), while UK cooled off only nominally, hitting 45% from behind the arc (5-11). Vanderbilt was doubled up on the boards (20-10), and could only manage 2 second chance points, compared to UK's 11. Still, Vanderbilt had a chance to at least tighten up the game and cut the lead to 10 with under 5 minutes. However, Jeffery Taylor's missed dunk at the 4:58 mark proved to be the death knell for the Commodores. The score was 76-64 when JT missed the open-court slam. UK hit a 3, Vanderbilt was completely deflated, and the Wildcats went on to win by 13.
Still, there is reason to be encouraged heading into Saturday given the way Vanderbilt ended the game. John Jenkins netted 10 points on 2-3 shooting, 5-6 from the line in 11 minutes of play. The Commodores got a balanced scoring attack from Walker (6), Taylor (5), A.J. (8), Beal (7). While Jeffery Taylor was somewhat of a shrinking violent in Lexington, there is reason to think he's regained his confidence on the offensive end. After beating Tennessee, squeaking by LSU, and beating a desperate team in Ole Miss last night, Vanderbilt has shown a grit that all to often Commodore teams have lacked.
Getting to the Free Throw Line:
Vanderbilt has attempted 65 more free throws than their last 3 opponents (120 - 55), which has resulted in a 57 point advantage. Those are staggering numbers. For Vanderbilt to be successful tomorrow, they have to get to the line a lot, and they have to take advantage when they get there.
DeMarcus Cousins and the Wildcat Freshmen
He is an absolute beast. But he is also crazy. Kentucky has played some tough road games this season and have equipped themselves well in hostile territory. Still, Memorial is a different animal and will be unlike anything Cousins or the rest of the team will have seen. Cousins played a huge game Tuesday at The Hump and was certainly playing with added purpose after the text messages and phone calls he received. Still, I can't help but think there might be a hangover effect and Cousins is ripe for a meltdown. He should have been thrown out of the game in Lexington for his errant elbows and generally disagreeable disposition. I think it's possible the student section (with the help of the VSL Brain Trust) might be enough to rattle him, John Wall, and the rest of the young Wildcats. Which brings me to my next point...
Andy Katz said last night on The Bracket on ESPNU that he thought Patterson might be the key to tomorrow's game. He might be right. Patterson is a senior who has been to Memorial before. He knows what it's like and is likely to be the calmest player on the floor in blue at tip-off time. That, plus the fact he is a very good player who can extend defenses given his range, makes him an incredibly dangerous player for Calipari.
Echoing my point about the UK freshmen, this is also Coach Cal's first trip to Memorial as well. He tries to keep a tight rein on his team given their youth and will undoubtedly have a more difficult time communicating with his squad given that the benches are on the end-lines. Communication, or lack thereof, could truly be a factor tomorrow.
Crash Those Boards
Vanderbilt got out-rebounded 41-22, the most lopsided performance since Cincinatti dominated the Commodores in Maui. This cannot happen if Vanderbilt is going to win. UK got 20 second-chance points in Lexington, compared to Vanderbilt's 2. While the Commodores don't have to get more second-chance points than UK, but they can't be -18.
Vanderbilt is deep, but UK likes to run. For Vanderbilt to be successful, they have to dictate the pace of play. If this game is a track-meet, I think the Commodores lose. This doesn't mean we have to take the air out of the ball, but Vanderbilt should certainly "pick their spots." Vanderbilt is a team that can be successful playing different styles. I'm not sure if the same can be said about UK, who much prefers to run. In part, Mississippi State almost won the game because they got UK to play a half-court game in the second half.
And In Conclusion (applause)
Memorial will be electric tomorrow. The key is Vanderbilt feeding off that energy in a positive way. They were able to harness that energy against Tennessee last week, can they do the same tomorrow?
We'll have more thoughts as the game approaches, in the meantime, get excited, the Commodores are ready for their close-up.