The first time that the Kentucky Wildcats and the Vanderbilt Commodores faced off this season, the two teams were vastly different than they are right now. At the time, the Wildcats were beating up on every SEC opponent they played, while the Commodores were in the middle of what would be a four game losing streak. Tonight’s game is a little different, as Kentucky hosts Vandy for the final regular season game of the year. Senior night for Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, and Mychal Mulder comes while Vandy is currently on a four game win streak.
In the first week of February, Vanderbilt’s best player, Matthew Fisher-Davis was suspended for a game for a violation of team rules. The Commodores’ leading scorer hasn’t started a game since then, but Bryce Drew’s squad is now 5-1 in their last six games with Fisher-Davis coming off the bench. While the starting lineup may not be overall as talented, Fisher-Davis gives Vandy some much needed scoring off the bench.
On the Kentucky side of the ball, the last regular season home game means John Calipari will start Hawkins, Willis, and Mulder together for the first time all season. Coach Cal confirmed that he’ll probably start Bam Adebayo and Isaiah Briscoe alongside the three seniors. Let’s take a look at the potential starting lineup for Vanderbilt tonight against the Cats.
#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 13.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. He’s third 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 35.4% from behind the arc this season, to go along with an 85% 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, he was not ready for the physicality that Bam brought to the table last game. Bam shot 10 free throws, and Kornet picked up 4 fouls. Same thing happened on the other end of the floor as Kornet scored 16 against Bam’s 4 fouls.
#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. He had 19 points and 9 rebounds in the first match up this 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 11.1 points and 1.8 assists. Outside of blue collar work down low, Roberson can hit a jumper when called upon and has knocked down 34.3% of his 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. The four spot combined for only 6 points and 8 rebounds for the Cats in the last game against Roberson, while he had more in both categories on his own. Kentucky will need a bigger game from that position if they want to extend a lead against Vanderbilt.
#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 49.1% from 3-point range, which puts him at the top of the SEC. He’s also shooting 85% from the free throw line. In the first game against the Cats, LaChance had 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
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. UK’s three usual starting guards combined for 63 of the team’s 87 points in the first game at Vandy.
#24 Nolan Cressler, RS Senior Guard, 6’4″
Nolan Cressler has started 16 of Vanderbilt’s 29 games this season, after starting only 2 games all of last season. The redshirt senior played two seasons at Cornell before transferring to play for the Commodores. He was named Honorable Mention All-Ivy League as a sophomore when he averaged 16.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.6 assists.
The senior is currently averaging 7.7 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. He’s hitting 45.6% of his long balls on the season, but only 65.2% of his free throws. During this four game win streak for the Commodores, his stats have increased to 9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. In the first game against the Cats, Cressler finished with 2 points, 2 assists, and 4 rebounds.
Cressler has provided a steady hand in his starting role as of late. His stats are increasing and the team is playing better than ever. As I stated earlier though, defending the UK guards isn’t an easy task for the Commodores. Vandy has switched to a better man-to-man defense lately which has improved their team defense overall, in comparison to the mostly zone defense they played against the Cats in the first match up of the year.
#2 Joe Toye, Sophomore Forward, 6’7″
Since the one-game suspension of Matthew Fisher-Davis, Joe Toye has stepped in to a starting role for Bryce Drew. Toye brings some more size to the starting lineup for Vanderbilt, as he is two inches taller than Fisher-Davis. Toye was a four-star prospect out of Whitney Young High School in Illinois before coming to play for the Commodores.
Toye’s normal averages aren’t huge, but they’ve increased as of late. On the season, he’s averaging 5.8 points, 2,7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists. He’s shooting 35.8% from three point land and almost 70% from the charity stripe. During this four game win streak for Vandy though, Toye is putting up 7.8 points and is hitting 40% of his triples.
In the first match up against Kentucky, the sophomore had 2 points and 3 rebounds in only 12 minutes of game action off of the bench. While his height helps Vanderbilt have a height advantage against the normal starting lineup for the Cats, I’m not sure his defensive attributes are enough to stick the athletic backcourt that Kentucky is going to throw at him. I think going at Toye any time he is defending a Kentucky guard will get the Cats some points.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, Matthew Fisher-Davis is going to have to be one guy that Kentucky watches coming off the bench tonight. Fisher-Davis is the leading scorer for the Commodores at 15 points per game. While his scoring has gone down a small amount since being moved to a substitute role, his rebounding has increased. Fisher-Davis has taken almost 200 threes on the season, so chasing him off of that line is big for the Cats. Kentucky has beaten the last 7 teams they’ve played on senior night, and I think that winning tradition continues tonight over Vandy. While the first game may have seen the Cats struggle to defend, I think they come out with the same energy they used to beat Florida on Saturday. Hopefully, the Rupp Arena crowd can make this senior night something special for these three guys who have played their hearts out for the Big Blue Nation for the past few years.
Go Cats. Beat Commodores.
Go Dom, Go Derek, and Go Mychal.