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 1-8, with most of the losses coming by double digits. The Commodores have losses of 19, 20, 21, 15, and 26.
Since giving Kentucky a scare two weeks ago, Vandy has looked better, and the efforts have resulted in their first SEC win in almost two seasons. The Commodores lost to Florida at home by just 6, knocked off previously unbeaten in the SEC and first-place LSU, and then lost at Mississippi State by 10. Kentucky came out extremely lethargic in the first match up against Vanderbilt, but was able to climb back in and pick up the win late in the game. If they do that again tonight, Vandy may have improved enough to close the door before the Cats walk back through it.
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 16.9 points and 4.5 assists per game. The Phoenix, Arizona native is also averaging 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals, while shooting just under 30% from three and 74.4% from the free throw line.
Including the Kentucky game, Lee has stayed hot over the last two weeks. He scored 21 in Rupp, followed by 11 of his team’s 55 against Florida. In the big win over LSU, Lee scored 33 points on 13 of 20 from the field, and scored 20 points against Mississippi State on Saturday. Averaging more than 21 points per contest as of late, slowing down Lee will be key to stopping a potential Vanderbilt upset.
March 3, 2018 February 5th, 2020
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 in almost two years. All of that changed a week ago, as winless in-conference Vanderbilt knocked off undefeated in-conference LSU 99-90 last Tuesday. February 5th of 2020 was the day that Vandy finally ended the worst streak in SEC history.
In that previous span, Vanderbilt had lost 27 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 was 26 straight regular season conference losses for the Commodores. This streak was the longest regular season losing streak in SEC history, a mark previously set by one of the founding members of the conference, the Sewanee Soars from 1938-1940. After beating LSU last week, Vandy lost on Saturday. After setting the record by losing to Kentucky last time, the Commodores look to avoid starting another streak tonight with a second consecutive loss.
5. Keeping it at triple digits
When Kentucky played Vanderbilt earlier this season, Kentucky started slow but pulled out a 71-62 victory. This pushed Kentucky’s overall record against Vanderbilt to 148-47, 101 wins better than the Commodores all-time. But now that the margin is up over 100, the Cats look to keep it that way, and never want to see it drop down to double digits again. That pursuit continues tonight, as Kentucky travels to Memorial Gymnasium, where the Commodores haven’t beaten UK since 2016.
The Commodores are an 11-point underdog to the Wildcats tonight, the largest spread Kentucky has faced since the last time they played Vanderbilt. The previous match up was a 21-point spread that Vandy easily covered. After playing much better over the last two weeks, the Commodores are looking to use some of that Memorial Magic to pull off their second huge upset in a seven day span.
Go Cats. Beat Commodores.