Last year’s Vanderbilt basketball team was special. Yes, they had frustrating losses. No, they didn’t have the deep NCAA tournament run. But as we get further removed from their era, their accomplishments will become more appreciated.
That will be evident tonight as the Kentucky Wildcats come to town for the first meeting between the two teams since the Commodores upset the eventual national champions down in New Orleans in the SEC Tournament Final.-- A tremendous accomplishment given the special quality of that Kentucky team. Unfortunately, because of the blur of the postseason and the gut wrenching 3rd Round loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament a week later, Vanderbilt fans probably didn’t savor their first SEC Tournament Title since 1951 the way they should have.
Here’s a refresher:
One heck of a game. In fact, all 3 of the matchups between the two teams were close, exciting, intense battles involving 7 of the first 31 picks in last summer’s NBA Draft.
Of course, this year’s cast of characters will be completely different for both teams. Other than Kedren Johnson’s huge driving reverse layup in the final minutes, nobody you will be watching tonight played any significant role. Commodore fans know the story of this year’s young squad so far, entering SEC play at 6-6. Let’s take a closer look at the latest version of the new Wildcats:
Kentucky at 9-4 had a nice win to start the year against Maryland, but since then has lost to good teams and beaten up on weak teams. They are 0-4 against the RPI Top 50, and 8-0 against teams 200 and above. Cats fans are worried that because of the weak SEC, their NCAA chances could be in jeopardy with their RPI at a mediocre 69.
As mediocre as their RPI is (and it’s not time to worry too much about that yet), their Ken Pomeroy ratings are much better (#10). It’s strange to have this big of a gap between a KenPom rating and an RPI. This is a result of impressive statistics against low rated teams like Eastern Michigan, whom they beat 90-38. Some highlights of how they operate:
- Solid defense with long shot blockers. Not as special as last year’s group, but blocking 17.5% of shots taken, good for 5th in the country. Holding teams to just 39% from 2pt. range (8th in the country).
- Offense gets it done with length and slashers to the basket. They don’t rely on the 3 too much, but hit a decent rate (37%). UK has taken care of the ball for the most part and shoot 54.5% from 2pt range (22nd in the country).
- Poor FT shooters—64% (294th)
- Not much depth.
10 Archie Goodwin - 6’4 2 guard/ good scorer who can really create off the dribble. Capable 3pt shooter but doesn’t take many. Lots of assists but lots of turnovers. Gets fouled a lot and has by far taken the most FT’s on the team.
22 Alex Poythress - 6’7 monster talent who can go get it on the glass and finish down low. Has the ability to go outside and shoot as well, but the defense would probably prefer him to do this so he is off the offensive boards. Hasn’t been playing in high leverage situations as much as I thought he would- yet.
33 Kyle Wiltjer - 6’10 Bomber who screws up matchups when UK goes with big lineup. Spots up and lets it fly at a 43% rate. Hit big shots to keep them in it against Louisville—confidence is high.
12 Ryan Harrow - like the long line of UK/Calipari teams, the freshman point guard who has to put it all together like those before him (Wall, Knight, Teague, etc.). Hasn’t put it all together yet, but assist to turnover ratio is good overall. Big key for Cats.
3 Nerlens Noel - 6’10 freakish athlete. Can face the basket, drive and spin to the hole. Still learning nuances and needs some polish. Great shot blocker, poor FT shooter.
15 Willie Cauley-Stein - 7’0 true center who can move very well for his size. Best offensive rebounder on the team. If he catches on the block—must be fouled on the floor or it’s a dunk. Very poor FT shooter at only 37%.
MATCHUP VS VANDERBILT
Kentucky’s size verses Vanderbilt’s lack thereof is the biggest concern for Kevin Stallings. The Dores must find a way to force UK to take jumpers from the perimeter and somehow keep them off the offensive boards. VU has been solid defensively all year however, and may be able to hold their own if they can stay out of foul trouble.
Offensively, Vanderbilt has struggled to get baskets in the paint against even average sized defenses. It’s going to be even tougher tonight with the shot blocking ability of UK. The Dores will have to hit some contested shots from 3 point range and midrange off the dribble to get enough offensively. They will need to execute good screens and cuts to try and sneak some open looks from set plays. And of course – they have to hit the Free Throws (that HAS to be due to get better doesn’t it?). It’s going to take Vanderbilt’s best 40 minutes of the year to win this one. Kentucky looks like they are starting to come together. Their confidence will be high after their second half performance at Louisville. They are not nearly as polished as last year’s group, but by March they will be a threat as usual.
Photo courtesy of nationofblue.com