QUICK FACTS • Tip-off: 2:00 pm CDT • Series Info: 167th meeting; Kentucky leads the overall series 128-38; Kentucky leads 74-13 in Lexington, 47-22 in Nashville and 6-3 at neutral sites. • Last Year's Meetings: Vanderbilt won both meetings: 57-52 at Rupp Arena on Jan. 10 and 84-81 at Memorial Gymnasium on Feb. 11. • Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (134-102) and his 14th year overall (257-165); Tubby Smith is in his 10th year at Kentucky (256-74) and his 16th year overall (380-136). • Rankings: Kentucky is No. 25 in AP poll. Vanderbilt is not ranked in either poll. • Radio: Vanderbilt-ISP Radio Network (WGFX 104.5 FM); Sirius Radio: Channel 125. • Television: Lincoln Financial
SCOUTING KENTUCKY Kentucky may not be back to their form of a decade or two ago, but it seems clear they are a force to be reckoned with in the SEC this year. Sitting at 15-3, UK is ranked just 25th in the AP poll -- but are ranked fifth in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's RPI. They also own the third highest strength of schedule in the land.
UK's three losses all came in their first seven games this year: to No. 1 UCLA 73-68 and No. 9 Memphis 80-63 in the Maui Classic, and at No. 2 North Carolina 75-63 on December 2.
Those are the three toughest teams Kentucky has played this year, but Tubby has certainly taken care of business against some good teams. Among their "good wins" are No. 19 Indiana, No. 55 DePaul, and No. 67 UMass.
Since entering SEC play, Kentucky has beaten four of the weaker teams in the league this year -- at Ole Miss, at South Carolina, and at home versus Auburn and MSU.
The weakness of last year's UK team was their guard play, and specifically their almost complete inability to hit outside shots. It remains to be seen how much Tubby has been able to improve in that area this year. Bradley leads the team from the 3-point line, shooting 43 percent on 96 attempts. That ranks just eighth in the league, two spots below Vandy's Dan Cage. Joe Crawford, who rarely sees a shot he won't take, is 12th at 38 percent. Crawford has already attempted 204 shots this year, ranking him near the top of the SEC in that category.
Where UK has established their presence is in the solid play of Morris in the paint. Shooting 60 percent from the field, and averaging 16.4 points per game, Morris has been an anchor in the middle when the outside shots haven't been falling. The 7-foot junior also pulls down eight boards per game, ranking him seventh in the league.
True freshman Perry Stevenson won't remind anyone of Sam Bowie, but shooting 67 percent from the field gets you a lot of kudos by any measure. Stevenson has been a solid back-up to Randolph in the few moments he's resting on the bench.
Defensively, UK is holding opponents to a suffocating 29 percent from the 3-point line, and a paltry 36 percent overall. Both numbers are 10 full percentage points better than Vandy. With Morris and Stevenson in the paint, Kentucky is also among the SEC's best shot blocking teams, which is an area where VU is dead last. In its last 11 games, UK has given up just 59.3 points per game, which is three points better than their average last season.
Kentucky has gotten solid (and much-needed) contributions from true freshmen Jodie Meeks (6.6 ppg/84 percent from the foul line) and Derrick Jasper (5.2 ppg/4.9 rpg/3.39 apg). Both have taken turns in the starting lineup.
The simmering backstory for UK last year was a complete breakdown in team chemistry. Though Rajon Rondo was a terrific athlete, he did little to bring unity and flow to his team, focusing more on his potential NBA career than on his responsibilities in Lexington. This year, things have been much calmer in the locker room.
Vanderbilt humiliated Alabama largely due to Mark Gottfried's insistance on sticking with a completely ineffective zone defense. Mark UK as the first of many teams that won't play a lick of zone against Vandy. With Rupp Arena behind them, Kentucky will no doubt try to pressure Vanderbilt's guards early, and try to get the home folks involved in turning things to the Cats early.
UK is coming off of their own demolition, with an 87-49 shellacking of South Carolina in Columbia on Tuesday. Currently, Kentucky is a half game ahead of defending national champ Florida in the SEC East standings.
Mike Rapp Franklin, Tenn. VandySports.com Publisher
After sweeping Kentucky last year, breaking one of the most infamous Rupp Arena losing streaks in the land, Vandy has a monkey off its back. And perhaps for the first time this year, it appears Stallings may have figured out how to thread the eye of the needle, using a legit four-guard offense to create mis-matches. With four players on the court able to drop an open three, VU has been able to stay competitive in many game despite being decimated on the boards.
But, Tubby won't make the same mistakes Gottfried and Paul Hewitt made, by allowing Vandy to stand outside and bomb in shots. On the contrary, I expect Crawford and Bradley to play the tightest man defense VU has seen this year. Vandy's X-factor, then, is Alex Gordon at the point, who has been the unsung hero of this team so far this season. Gordon may not be able to win this game alone, but he surely could lose it by trying to prove too much in front of the 22,000 UK partisans.
Much could also ride on how well Foster guards Crawford. Many have at times criticized Foster for a one-dimensional game, but his defense has made quantum improvement over the last month. Crawford will shoot the ball early and very often, whether he's open or not. If Foster can push him into a poor shooting performance, that could well be the difference today.
One interesting story to today's game is Ross Neltner, who grew up south of Cincinnati and was Mr. Basketball in Kentucky as a senior. After Vandy beat UK at Rupp last year, Ross' father Jack made no bones about how hard it was for him and Ross to watch that game from the sidelines. The elder Neltner is known to be a nervous Nellie before and during "normal" games, and no doubt did not sleep a wink last night thinking (and worrying) about today's game. Fortunately for Vandy fans, his son claims to never get nervous... and we'll see if that holds true today.
One of the grand traditions of the SEC are the blue-colored glasses officials wear when officiating in Rupp. Basically, you have to beat UK by 10 in Lexington to win by one -- and Vandy did that and more last year. What a turnaround Stallings could claim if he could pull the upset today. If things go Vandy's way, they could win by three -- but, by my math, that means they lose by seven.
Vanderbilt did it again, they came strong from the perimeter and played solid defense throughout on their way to defeating a Top 10 squad on Wednesday. Now the question is, can they take that to the road, and could they beat Kentucky in Rupp for the second year in a row?
While Kentucky has been getting some love recently for their so-called "suffocating defense", this person saw that suffocating defense almost lose to Mississippi State last weekend, and if it was not for a ill-advised drive and penetration straight into a non-moving Randolph Morris by former Glencliff standout Jamont Gordon, the Bulldogs could have very well defeated the Cats. So needless to say, I'm not convinced that Kentucky's defense is as strong as the buzz that's been created about it in the last couple of weeks.
If Kentucky does bring the pressure on the perimeter, this is where Vanderbilt has to make the Wildcats pay with slashes to the basket and the backdoor cuts of years past.
Offensively, this is not your typical Kentucky team, and if the Commodores point guard defense can pressure Jasper and not get too badly burned by Morris or make a star out of Jodie Meeks, Vanderbilt can very well win this game.
The X-factor is going to be the play of Alex Gordon. If Gordon plays the way he played on Wednesday, Vanderbilt can be a deadly team, even on the road.
Back in November when the Wildcats were being eaten alive at the hands of Memphis, UCLA and North Carolina a lot of us thought we might be able to write off this edition of Tubby's kids as a work in progress. After eleven straight victories they now just might qualify as the hottest team in the conference.
I do think Vandy has found its legs for this season and I'm suspecting as long as Foster, Byars, Neltner and Cage are being directed with suddenly improved point play nobody will easily knock the Commodores off without a good fight the rest of 2007. That said just like last Wednesday showed me that history tells more than we expect in squaring up the talent gap the history of Rupp Arena is going to be way too much for the Commodores to handle.
Morris is going to control the paint and Crawford suddenly looks like the player everybody thought he'd be out of Prep School. The Wildcats still feature a smothering defense and will deny the lane as usual against Vandy in Lexington.
Vanderbilt will be in for a rude awakening if they expect to see defense like they did Wednesday night. This Kentucky team will get after you, and Vanderbilt's ability to handle the tough D will determine whether they have a chance to win the game in the final few minutes. I don't expect Vandy's shooters to get the same open 3's against Kentucky that they did versus Alabama. This game will come down to toughness and defense.
Kentucky's three losses (North Carolina, UCLA and Memphis) look much better than any of their wins ( Indiana and Louisville being probably the two best), but there is a lot to say for winning all the games you are suppose to, and that is just what they have done. So, make no mistake, this Kentucky team is not one of the best we have seen in the last 20 years, but its not near the worst, either.
My opinion is you let Morris get his (meaning, you don't constantly double team him leaving shooters open to get in a rhythm), just make sure he doesn't cause you a lot of foul problems, and focus on Crawford and Bradley. Crawford has been especially hot lately, scoring over 20 in three of the last four games.
On paper, man per man, Vandy actually doesn't match up that poorly with Kentucky. Other than Morris, Kentucky is not overly big or athletic (yes, Stevenson started out the year with a ton of blocks, but he's only getting 11 minutes a game during the SEC schedule, averaging one block a game).
Their strength is in their guards, and especially the way the guards play defense. If Vandy can play tough versus the pressure defense Kentucky plays, and not let Crawford or Bradley loose on the other end, they should be in this game until the final minutes.
To win in Rupp, you really have to be tough, and be ready to play some defense. You don't get the calls, and the fans are normally into it. I don't see Vandy getting into an offensive flow this game, and I just am not confident enough they can get the crucial stops when they need them.
I think Vandy will be in this game with five minutes to go, and though I think it is possible, I just don't think they will pull this game out. But, if they do, the NCAA Tournament will go from a long shot to a real possibility.
Kentucky 71, Vanderbilt 63 Chris Lee Nashville, Tenn. VandySports.com Publisher
This Commodore team has obviously improved greatly since the start of the season, and few things have encouraged me more than the way that Foster and Byars have taken over games of late.
That said, this will be the toughest defense Vandy will likely face all season. I expect Tubby Smith to do his best to try and lock down Foster and Byars, and make Vandy beat them from inside, which hasn't exactly been Vandy's forte this year.
And, let's be honest: After nearly 30 years of watching SEC hoops, the home team nearly always gets the calls, but there is no doubt that no team in the league has a more decided advantage in that category than do the 'Cats in Lexington. No official enjoys facing the wrath of 25,000 screaming Blue Misters, and going in, you just expect that there will be a moderate amount of no-calls or borderline calls that go against you as the road team. To beat the 'Cats, you probably need to be at least 5-10 points better on a given day.
Furthermore, the Morris matchup inside scares me for Vanderbilt. Smith is no idiot, and knows that the Commodores are foul-prone in the paint. I expect a steady dose of feeds to Morris inside, and it would be no surprise to see Skuchas and Neltner in foul trouble all afternoon.
Vandy does have some recent history on its side, sweeping UK last year. But, I think this year's UK team is better, and certainly plenty motivated after what happened last year, and I think that the most likely outcome will be for the 'Cats to maintain an 8-12 point lead for most of the day, and put an end to the short VU streak against them.