Kentucky looks to avoid trap game at Vanderbilt
Yesterday Kenny Payne told the media that there are no trap games when you are Kentucky because every game is a Super Bowl. I love Kenny but I have watched enough Kentucky basketball to know that trap games are a real thing, even for the Wildcats. Vanderbilt is 0-6 in the SEC and Kentucky is coming off one of their most emotional wins of the season. That adds up to a big time trap for the young Cats. Add in the fact that the game is at Memorial Gym and I have a sneaking suspicion that this game will be much closer than many expect.
Earlier in the month Kentucky beat Vanderbilt by just 9 points in Rupp Arena. The Commodores played a zone for the majority of the game and the Cats struggled to score against it. You can be sure that Bryce Drew is planning to play zone again tonight. The positive is that the Cats have already faced it once and should have a little better idea about how to attack it. While Kentucky is riding high after three straight wins against ranked teams, the Commodores are on a seven game losing streak. In their last home game Vanderbilt lost to Tennessee in over time and it was a game they should have won. A terrible flagrant foul call ended up costing them the game but they showed that they are capable of beating one of the best teams in the nation. That game and the close game in Rupp should help get the attention of the Cats.
Despite their record Vanderbilt is not a terrible team. They have a young and talented roster that can be trouble when they get hot from beyond the arc. They have some length inside and did a great job of limiting PJ Washington and Reid Travis to just 8 points in the first meeting. Aaron Nesmith has been their hottest player as of late. He is a 6’9 swing man that has been shooting the ball very well. They are still recovering from the loss of their star freshman point guard but Saban Lee is averaging 19 points over his last four games. Simi Shittu is their key player inside the paint. At 6’10 and 240 pounds he has the size and athleticism to give the Cats some trouble. The other factor in this game is the “Memorial magic” that seems to happen in that gym, especially when Kentucky is there. Some of that is due to the odd court setup that has the benches on the baselines rather than the sidelines. It makes it a bit harder to communicate with the coach in that setting. The players have to be more vocal with each other and make sure everyone stays on the same page on offense and defense.
Kentucky has made huge strides over the last few weeks but this will be a different type of test for them. The question is if they can get up for an inferior opponent or if they will come out flat and let Vandy get off to a fast start. In the first meeting 42 of Kentucky’s 56 points were scored by Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. The zone that Vandy will play will give opportunities for the Cats to make shots from the 3-pt line. Tyler Herro, Jemarl Baker, Johnson and Quickley will need to knock down some shots to open up the paint for Travis and Washington. The other key to attacking the zone is to get the ball to Hagans, Johnson, Herro or Washington around the free throw line and let them make plays. In the first game I felt that the Cats didn’t get that done as much as they could have so it will be something to watch. The Cats dominated the glass in the first match up and that will be crucial again tonight. The Cats are currently a 10 point favorite in Las Vegas but I am thinking it will be a closer game.
It should be a game that stays within 3 to 5 points for the majority of the contest. I think Vandy will start the game well and the Cats will battle back by halftime. In the second half Kentucky will take a slight lead and maintain it without ever being able to put the Dores away. In the end the Cats will prevail 66-62 for the win. A blow out win would be great to see but the reality is that a road win in conference play is always a good thing, no matter what the margin of victory is. The Cats have to survive this test because they have an even tougher road test coming up on Saturday at Florida. Two more Super Bowls but Kentucky wouldn’t want it any other way.