When Kentucky goes into Memorial Gymnasium on Thursday night they are going to be facing a Vanderbilt team unlike any we’ve seen in the past three years. This year’s team does not have that odd mix of talent and mediocrity that we’ve come to know and love from Kevin Stallings’ teams. As a senior at Vanderbilt (but still unequivocally a Cats fan) it pains me to say it but this team simply isn’t good enough to be a contender in the SEC. Vanderbilt does have one asset at its disposal, however, that could cause problems for the Cats; that damned MC Escher designed gymnasium they play in. Yes, the one where the shot clocks are on the floor, the benches are on the ends, and the fans play while the players cheer. It doesn’t make any sense.
Its not just the quirky design of the arena we have to worry about. When Kentucky comes into town the atmosphere completely changes. All the seats are filled and the student section is overflowing. Fans line up early to get in and when tip-off finally arrives they get loud. Really loud. Two years ago I walked into my first Vanderbilt-Kentucky game (I had to miss the game my freshman year), strutting my lucky Kelenna Azubuike jersey, expecting to receive some degree of playful smack-talk. I was wrong. Practically every fan in the student section seemed to have a legitimate hatred for me and for what I was doing. I was on the receiving end of a near constant stream of trash, both physical and verbal. That year the Brandon Knight led Wildcats were upset by the Commodores. Score one for the Gymnasium.
One of the main criticisms of this years Kentucky team is that they too often play like freshmen. To an outsider this may seem like an odd statement considering that our team is made up predominantly of freshmen. However, at Kentucky we’ve become a little spoiled. We’ve had teams filled with rookies the last three years that have all, at some point or another, played like seasoned veterans. But even last year’s national championship team could only manage a 6-point victory at Vanderbilt.
My point is that despite the obvious shortcomings of this year’s Commodores this game could easily end up being close one. Even our most talented and poised team of the Calipari era struggled to get a win at Memorial. This year we have the luxury of playing a team that is far less talented than last year. Still, the environment will be the same as in years past. The student section will be packed, and loud, and in the second half John Calipari will be 90 feet away and our guys will essentially be on their own.
We’ve seen this team make major strides over the past few weeks in terms of how hard they play and how they communicate on the court. The timing couldn’t be better, because a game like this will be entirely determined by the mental toughness of our guys. Our advantage in talent is undeniable. If we play with focus and intensity we should have no problem cruising to a victory, even on an off shooting night. If our guys let the atmosphere throw them off, though, we could be in trouble. Basically, we just have to beat that damned gymnasium.