1. A team without a leader
When the Cats take on the Vanderbilt Commodores tonight in Rupp Arena, Head Coach Jerry Stackhouse will be without his best player and one of the better players in the SEC, Aaron Nesmith. The 6’6″ sophomore forward was the leading scorer in the conference at 23 points per game, to go along with 4.9 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per contest. He was shooting a fiery hot 52.2% from three-point land and 82.5% from the free throw line.
Nesmith had already had games scoring 34 twice this season, to go along with other big scoring outputs of 29, 26 twice, and 25. Unfortunately for both Vandy and Nesmith, his season was cut short due to a stress fracture in his foot. They originally labeled the length of time he’d miss as indefinite, but have since expanded to saying he’s likely out for the rest of the season. If Nesmith can get back to 100% healthy, he could be a player that dominates in the SEC next season.
2. A tale of two teams
Prior to Nesmith’s injury, which has kept him out since January 8th, Vanderbilt was sitting at an 8-6 overall record, with no losses coming by more than single digits. However, since the loss of Nesmith, Vanderbilt has looked like a completely different team, and not in a positive way. In the five games since January 8th, Vandy is 0-5, with losses all coming in double digits. The Commodores have losses of 19, 20, 21, 15, and 26.
Even more so is the drastic decline in all offensive output, as no one has been able to pick up all the rope that was left when Nesmith went down. In the five losses, Vanderbilt is scoring just over 55 points per contest, ranking near last at 348th in the country. Even more so, and this was touched on by our own Brandon Ramsey in his earlier scouting report, but the Commodores have dropped their shooting to just 41.2% from the field, 26.7% from three, and 65.2% from the free throw line without Nesmith.
3. Who takes up the slack?
The player most likely to pick up the slack and step into the leader role for this Commodore squad is Saben Lee. The 6’2″ junior guard is now the leading scorer and passer for Vanderbilt at 15.9 points and 4.6 assists per game. The Phoenix, Arizona native is also averaging 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals, while shooting just under 30% from three and 73.3% from the free throw line.
In his last four games, Lee has averaged just around 17 points per game, but his efficiency hasn’t been anything to write home about. He’s shooting almost 14 shots per game in that span, while hitting only 35% from the field. He’s only 1 of 14 from three point land in that span, so he may be pushing himself to try to fill Nesmith’s shoes. Lee has played well against Kentucky in the past, as he combined for 24 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds in two match ups against the Cats last season.
4. March 3, 2018
March 3rd of 2018 may seem like an insignificant date to most. Outside of the Cats losing at Florida that day, it isn’t a day that will be remembered by UK fans. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt fans, that date, March 3rd of 2018, sticks out in their minds as the last time that the Commodores knocked off a team from the Southeastern Conference. An 82-69 win over 12-18 Ole Miss was the last SEC win for Vanderbilt in nearly two full years.
In that span, Vanderbilt has lost 25 consecutive conference games in the SEC, an almost unheard of mark in modern college basketball. One of those losses was in the SEC Tournament, so it is 24 straight regular season conference losses for the Commodores. The most recent, at South Carolina on Saturday, tied Vanderbilt for the longest regular season losing streak in SEC history, a mark set by one of the founding members of the conference, the Sewanee Soars from 1938-1940. Kentucky could make history tonight, giving Vandy their 25th consecutive regular season SEC loss.
5. Keeping it at triple digits
When Kentucky played Vanderbilt exactly one calendar year ago, the score was 87-52 in favor of the Cats. This pushed Kentucky’s overall record against Vanderbilt to 147-47, exactly 100 wins better than the Commodores all-time. But now that the margin is up in triple digits, the Cats look to keep it that way, and never want to see double digits again. That pursuit begins tonight, as Vanderbilt travels to Rupp Arena, where the commodores haven’t won since 2007.
The Commodores are a 21-point underdog to the Wildcats tonight, the largest spread Kentucky has faced since the Fairleigh Dickinson game on December 7th. This is the largest spread Kentucky has faced in an SEC game since hosting LSU on February 7th, 2017. The smallest margin of defeat since losing Aaron Nesmith to injury has been 15 for the Commodores, so the Cats should be able to take care of business tonight.
Go Cats. Beat Commodores.