After the big win in their final non-conference game of the regular season over the weekend, the Cats are now back in SEC play to close out the final 12 games of the year. Next up is a road trip to the most unique venue in college basketball.
After nearly stunning Tennessee at Memorial Gymnasium last week, the Commodores were thumped by Oklahoma in Norman during the SEC-Big XII Challenge. In Bryce Drew’s third season in Nashville, Vandy is now 9-10 and is currently projected to finish last place in the SEC. The ‘Dores are off to an 0-6 start in conference play and this thing has totally fallen apart since five-star freshman Darius Garland was lost for the season.
It’s a classic hangover spot for Kentucky while Vanderbilt can’t play much worse than they did at Oklahoma on Saturday. We’ve seen some weird things happen at Memorial Gym over the years and the Wildcats will hope to avoid something crazy in their first late night tip on a Super Tuesday.
Nuts and Bolts
The last time Kentucky saw Vanderbilt, the Commodores were fresh off two double-digit losses to begin SEC play. They were desperately trying to find their identity without Darius Garland. Fast forward a few weeks later and things have gotten worse.
Since taking the hard fought loss to Kentucky in Rupp Arena, the Commodores have lost four consecutive games. They are off to an 0-6 start in conference play and are currently on a seven-game losing streak. After losing an absolute heartbreaker in overtime to Tennessee last week, the ‘Dores were crushed by Oklahoma in Norman this past weekend. Things are not going well for Bryce Drew.
The former Valparaiso player and head coach is in his third season in running the show in Nashville and his overall record there is now 40-46 with a 16-26 conference mark. The Commodores are an ugly 6-18 in the SEC the last two seasons. It’s been a tough, tough run for this program.
Since SEC play started, nothing has gone well for this basketball team. Per KenPom, in league games the Commodores are 13th in offensive inefficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency. They aren’t doing anything very well at the moment. Outside of defending the three-point shot (SEC opponents are only shooting 29 percent), the Commodores have struggled pretty much everywhere.
Much like this year’s previous meeting, expect some junky zone defenses to be employed by Drew. Vanderbilt’s best shot is to hope Kentucky goes cold and that they get hot on the offensive end. This team does a really good job at getting to the free throw line. Look for them to be aggressive when they have driving lanes.
After scoring 15 or more points in seven of the first 11 games of the games, star freshman Simi Shittu has done it just once in this seven-game losing streak. With the loss of Garland, Shittu immediately became this team’s best player and he hasn’t played like to this point. The Commodores desperately need him to start scoring the basketball.
This will be the 194th meeting between these two programs with Kentucky currently a slim 146-47 margin. The Wildcats have won five in a row in the series and are 5-0 against Bryce Drew. John Calipari is 15-4 against Vandy with a 6-2 mark at Memorial Gym.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 9.5 point favorite with a total of 140. That’s a projected final score of around 74.5-65.5. Against the spread, UK is 10-9 while Vanderbilt is 7-12. The Wildcats have covered four in a row. The Commodores are 2-5 against the number during this seven-game skid. The under is 4-1 in Kentucky’s last five games.
Without Darius Garland in the lineup, sophomore guard Saben Lee has stepped up to the plate and given Vanderbilt some very solid minutes. The Phoenix native has played over 30 minutes in every conference game but one and he is doing an excellent job at getting to the free throw line.
The 6-foot-2 combo guard has attempted at least 12 free throws in five different games this season and has put up at least six foul shots in every game where he’s played at least 30 minutes. He drives for contact. He’s been a very valuable piece all season.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for this basketball team has been freshman wing Aaron Nesmith who has emerged into a primary contributor for this team. The former top-70 recruit out of Charleston, South Carolina has lived up to his blue-chip label.
The 6-foot-6 perimeter player has reached double-digits in points in four of the last five games. He only did that three times in the team’s first 12 games of the season. Nesmith is beginning to adjust to the college game and he looks like a natural out on the court.
The young scorer has been a very smart player for the Commodores who does a great job providing outside shooting. He’s got a chance to develop into an All-SEC level performer in the future.
If you’re looking for the root of Vanderbilt’s struggles, look no further than the current funk that five-star freshman Simi Shittu is currently in. The Canadian native is shooting just 43.3 percent from the field since SEC play began and has not been able to get to the free throw line.
The athletic big was a force in non-conference play reaching double-digits in nearly every outing. He has not been the same since SEC play started and the Commodores need him to desperately shake out of his offensive slump.
Next to Shittu, Vandy has used a smorgasbord of options. Syracuse transfer Matthew Moyer provides a stretch four element while Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan does the same thing when he’s not playing on the wing. The ‘Dores can also get big with junior Clevon Brown or Yanni Wetzell.
Bryce Drew is currently fishing for answers with his frontcourt.
Keys to Victory
- In the last three years, Kentucky has not been very good at all in the game right after the Big XII-SEC challenge. UK has came out sluggish in each effort combined with an inability to get stops. Twice the Wildcats needed last minute heroics to force overtime to survive an upset scare. Against a down on their luck Vanderbilt team, it will be important for UK to come out with energy.
- John Calipari has had a lot of success at Memorial Gym, but he has never beaten Vanderbilt there by more than single-digits. This is a very unique environment even though there could be as many UK fans as Vandy fans in attendance tonight. Memorial Magic can be a real thing and it nearly knocked off Tennessee last week. If Kentucky doesn’t handle its business early it could give Vanderbilt just enough belief to make this a 40-minute ballgame.
- On the floor, Kentucky has been the best defensive squad in the conference since league play started. Vanderbilt is struggling mightily on offense. As long as the jump shots are not falling, Kentucky should have their way with the Commodores on this end. Don’t be surprised if the Wildcats limit a third conference foe to less than 60 points.