[Moderated by Matt Jones]
Tonight at 8:00 p.m., the Vanderbilt Commodores (10-14, 4-8 SEC) will travel to Rupp Arena to face the Kentucky Wildcats (17-8, 8-4 SEC) in a rematch of January 10’s controversial 60-58 Kentucky victory over the Commodores in Nashville. As hard as it may be for ‘Cats fans to believe, Kentucky enters tonight’s contest as a 12-point favorite over the visiting ‘Dores.
Player to Watch
The 6’4″ sophomore guard from Lewisburg, TN lit up the Wildcats for 18 points, 6 assists, and 4 steals when the two teams last met. Johnson leads Vanderbilt statistically in categories all across the stat sheet, including points (at 13.7 per game), assists (3.3), steals (1.3), minutes (32), and even turnovers (3.2). He is proficient from the 3-point line, as well, shooting his way in at just under 36%.
Willie Cauley-Stein led the way for the Wildcats in January’s win via a little bit of everything, with 8 rebounds, 7 points, 4 assists, 4 blocks, and 2 steals in a starting effort. Ryan Harrow led all ‘Cat scorers with 16 points while Archie Goodwin chipped in an additional 12. But what hurts Kentucky the most going into today’s game is the absence of big man Nerlens Noel, who scored 13 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and blocked 3 shots in last month’s win in Nashville. Moreover, Noel provided a bit of controversy at the expense of the Commodores by scoring a clutch jump shot with 17.3 seconds remaining that appeared to have left his hand after the shot clock had already expired. Under NCAA rule, the shot was not reviewable and was thus counted successfully.
What should be taken away from last month’s game is that it never should have come down to a 2-point finish in the first place. The ‘Cats dominated the game from the start, leading by 11 at the half and eventually pulling ahead to as many as 16 with 13:48 remaining. But momentum soon shifted in favor of the Commodores, as Kentucky missed their next 12 straight field goal attempts. Vanderbilt took full advantage of the Kentucky scoring drought by means of an 18-0 run and an ensuing 49-47 lead with 6:11 to go in the second half. As you may remember, the ‘Cats eventually regained the lead and hung on for a marginal nailbiter victory.
To ensure a W the second time, the ‘Cats must improve their field goal percentage and overall offensive efficiency. Both teams shot a dismal percentage from the field in the first matchup, though Kentucky took the cake with a 3-17 (17.6%) shooting performance from 3-point range. Without the presence of Noel to fall back upon on either defense or offense, Harrow, Goodwin, and Mays must work as a collective unit to keep the offensive tempo under control while the frontcourt of Wiltjer, Cauley-Stein, and Poythress must maintain command of the painted area, most notably on the glass. John Calipari simply cannot allow his team to come out flat as they did in Knoxville against Tennessee, and the young ‘Cats must learn not to let up off the accelerator if they seize another opportunity to build another large lead against the Commodores.
Cal still believes in this team, as he reiterated during the Pre-Vanderbilt Press Conference.”Whatever we wanna make of this season we can do. We can be the story of the year, of recovery and all that. We can do that if they choose to do that.” You can catch the full video below:
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