Last season, the Kentucky Wildcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores played each other twice in what probably are the two most dissimilar games between the same teams in history.
The first game was dominated by the Wildcats as Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Alex Poythress led Kentucky to a 19-point victory and combined for 55 of the Cats’ 76 points. On top of that was the solid defense from UK, holding Vandy to only 57 points, including no player scoring more than 13 points.
Game number two was about the polar opposite. Vandy beat Kentucky 74-62, and had four starters score in double figures. Meanwhile for the Cats, Coach Cal only had four players score period. That’s not a typo. There was 1 bench point scored in total between the two teams for the entire game, and it came from Commodore Riley LaChance.
Let’s move on to tonight’s game which should hopefully shape up to be more like the first of last year’s match ups, rather than the second. Head Coach Bryce Drew is in his first year as Vanderbilt’s head coach, coming off a long stint at his alma mater Valpo. However, under Drew’s tutiledge, the Commodores have struggled with a bit of a transition year of a roster of only 10 guys.
Here’s the projected starting lineup for the 8-7 Vanderbilt Commodores:
#5 Matthew Fisher-Davis, Junior Guard, 6’5″
Matthew Fisher-Davis is pretty much the definition of a consistent scorer for Vanderbilt and has been for two plus years. His freshman year he led the SEC in made threes, and was the SEC leader in three point percentage his sophomore season. Last year he scored a team-high 20 points in Vandy’s win over UK.
This season, Fisher-Davis is the leading the team in scoring and ranks 6th in the SEC. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game through 15 games this year. He’s shooting right up there with the best shooters in the conference, making just four deep balls less than the SEC leader, Malik Monk, on the season. He’s shooting 42.1% from 3 and 82.9% from the free throw line.
Fisher-Davis falls right in line of the really good SEC players with hyphenated names (MKG, WCS, KAT, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dorian Finney-Smith, etc.). He plays the 3 spot for the Commodores and like Coach Cal has done with most scorers at that position this season, I could see Isaiah Briscoe getting the defensive nod tonight.
#3 Luke Kornet, Senior Center, 7’1″
Luke Kornet, who was named to the All-SEC Defensive team last season, has a bit of Anthony Davis in him. The resemblance to Davis is the transformation he went through in his senior of high school. Kornet grew 7 inches during his senior year, and then 2 more inches in his first year at Vanderbilt. Also, Kornet was 4th in the country in blocked shots last season.
This season, Kornet is putting up really solid numbers at 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. He’s fourth in the SEC in shot blocking this year, but even more impressive is his ability to step away from the basket and knock down jumpers at his size. Kornet is shooting 32.7% from behind the arc this season, to go along with an 82.9% clip from the charity stripe.
The senior had two solid games agains the Cats last year, and his pure height could cause issues for Bam Adebayo defensively this year. While Bam has the clear athletic advantage in this matchup, he will still be giving up 4 inches to Kornet which could allow for the Commodores to try to shoot over the top of Adebayo. On the other side of the ball, while Kornet may be an above-average rim protector, I doubt he’s ever seen a guy with the strength and athleticism that Bam will bring to the post. For sure an intriguing match up in tonight’s game.
#11 Jeff Roberson, Junior Forward, 6’6″
The way that Jeff Roberson plays almost reminds me of the way Chuck Hayes used to play for the Cats back in the day. Hayes was severely undersized for the position he played but he was extremely successful regardless. Roberson will play the 4 position tonight for the Commodores at only 6’6″. He had 16 points and 8 rebounds in the win over the Cats last season.
Roberson usually isn’t going to blow you away with any one facet of his game, but he does so many little things well. At only 6’6″, he leads the team in rebounding at 7.2 per game, to go along with 9.7 points and 2.1 assists. Outside of blue collar work down low, Roberson can hit a jumper when called upon and has knocked down 17 threes this season.
He’ll probably end up being matched against the Wenyen Gabriel/Derek Willis pair on defense. The Cats will take a 3 inch advantage with either of those guys on the floor. However, both of them will have to really put an emphasis on boxing Roberson out so that he stays off the offensive glass.
#13 Riley LaChance, Junior Guard, 6’2″
After a really successful and promising freshman season, Riley LaChance hit a rough sophomore slump last year. Every facet of his game struggled and his stats showed with pretty noticeable decreases. However, LaChance is back to his old shooting ways in his junior season, proving that he can knock down the trey with the best shooters in the country.
LaChance is averaging 9.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and a team-leading 4.2 assists so far this season. He’s shooting an incredible 58.2% from 3-point range, which would be good for the best percentage in the country (LaChance doesn’t qualify for the list because he doesn’t shoot enough threes. One must make 2.5 threes per game to be eligible for the list, and LaChance is 5 makes short at this point in the season). Regardless of the list, he’s 32-55 on the year which is incredible, and he’s also shooting 88.9% from the free throw line.
LaChance’s ability to knock down a shot from virtually anywhere on the court will be one of the defensive keys for the Wildcat defense. I think Coach Cal probably puts De’Aaron Fox on the junior to start the game, with a mix of Briscoe here and there depending on how his shooting night is going. I think the struggle for Vandy is finding one of UK’s guards that LaChance can stick with on the defensive end.
#1 Payton Willis, Freshman Guard, 6’4″
Payton Willis has earned the starting nod in most of the games this season for Coach Bryce Drew. The true freshman was the 4th best player out of the state of Arkansas last year. Something tells me he didn’t hear any public outcry when he committed to play outside of Arkansas, but hey that’s just one guy’s opinion.
Willis has stepped into a starting role as a freshman quite nicely for not being as highly touted as most other starting freshmen around the country. He’s putting up 7.3 points, 2.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game at the moment. He’s shooting 39% from downtown, making him just shy of the fourth Commodore starter shooting over 40% from 3.
I see the Cats probably putting Malik Monk on Willis to start the game, just because he is the least offensive threatening of the three starting guards for Vanderbilt. And I guess if I absolutely had to pick one of the UK guards to be the third best defender, I’d probably pick Monk.
As mentioned earlier, Vanderbilt has really struggled in Bryce Drew’s first season. Their record of 8-7 shows that struggle, as their best non-conference win is over Chattanooga. Their losses include some bad ones, such as Bucknell, Dayton, and a 23-point loss to Middle Tennessee State. The Cats should have no issues with Vandy tonight, but you just never know with the funky set up of that court, how the freshmen will handle that unique atmosphere. This year, Coach Cal is allowed to roam the sideline which is different from years in the past. But still, let’s just get with the times and put the benches on the sidelines where they belong. Stepping off my soap box now.
Go Cats. Beat Commodores.