Preview and Prediction: UK vs Vanderbilt
The Cats head to Nashville on Saturday to play Vanderbilt in what will be a huge game for both teams. The Commodores are fighting to make the NCAA tournament and are in desperate need of every quality win they can get. This would be a huge win for them that would help solidify their tournament resume. For Kentucky it is a chance to improve their NCAA tournament seed by getting a road win against a good team. It is also a game that could put the Cats one step closer to winning the SEC regular season championship. After seeing a huge road win slip through the Wildcats fingers at Texas A&M last Saturday this is a chance for some redemption.
Vanderbilt enters the game after a very good win at Florida on Tuesday night. The Dores where projected to be a team that would challenge Kentucky for the SEC title and be a clear-cut NCAA tournament team. Things have not gone exactly as planned for Kevin Stallings and company this season as the team has lost a lot more games than expected. Stallings has even been rumored to be on the hot seat and could see it get really hot if Vandy does not get in the tourney. With that said Vandy appears to be playing some of it’s best basketball of the season at the right time.
The Commodores feature Damian Jones who is one of if not the best big men in the SEC. He is a future first round NBA draft pick that could be a match up problem for the Cats. Having Alex Poythress back in the lineup is huge because he can probably match up with Jones better than any other player on the team. Vandy also has point guard Wade Baldwin who is projected as a first round NBA draft pick. Baldwin leads the team in scoring at just over 14 points a game and is an exceptional three-point shooter. From there the Dores have a balanced scoring attack with several players that score a lot from beyond the arc.
In their first match-up the Cats beat Vandy 76-57 in Rupp Arena. Jones scored 13 points and grabbed 9 rebounds but his teammates did not focus on getting him the ball which held him from having a bigger game. The Wildcat guards thoroughly frustrated the Vandy starting back court of Baldwin and Riley LaChance, holding them to just 10 points and 3 assists while forcing them to make 6 turnovers. In that game Vanderbilt scored 20 points from the free throw line while Kentucky only scored 4 from the stripe. Alex Poythress scored 16 points in just 27 minutes of action so his return could be big in this game.
The problem for Vanderbilt when matching up with the Cats is that their good guards are over matched by the Wildcat back court. That leaves it on the shoulders of Jones and Luke Cornett to make up the difference by dominating the Cats big men. While the edge may go to Vandy in the front court the Cats have closed the gap and the difference is not big enough to overcome the advantage UK has in the back court. With all of that said there is no tougher place for the Cats to get a win than Memorial Gym. For whatever reason there have been very few easy games there no matter how good Kentucky is or how bad Vanderbilt is.
The Cats have Alex Poythress back in the lineup but it will likely be a game time decision for whether Derek Willis will play or not. My hunch is that he will end up playing but that will not be known until tip-off on Saturday. The key for the Cats will be the battle in the paint and on the boards. They were dominated on the offensive boards by the Aggies and that can not happen again if the Cats hope to win. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray are the difference makers for Kentucky and it will be interesting to see what defense Stallings will employ to try to slow the duo down. That is why it is important for Willis to play in this game because he helps spread the court and makes it tough for teams to focus only on Murray and Ulis.
Ultimately this will be a battle from start to finish that will probably be decided in the final five minutes. My prediction is the Cats will come away with a 76-72 win. Life on the road is not easy but I think these Wildcats are starting to figure it out. We shall see.