It was the classic sandwich spot for Kentucky on Wednesday night after a monster road win over Texas Tech. The Wildcats returned home to play one of the worst power conference teams in college basketball in an odd tip time before heading back out on the road for another monster tilt with Auburn this coming Saturday. We all should have expected a sluggish start.
However, after a bad offensive team made five threes and shot 60 percent from two-point range there were plenty of reasons to worry heading into the second 20 minutes. At that moment, plenty of members in the Big Blue Nation were having flashbacks to the Evansville loss but there was one important piece missing for UK in the first half. Nick Richards picked up two fouls before the first media timeout of the first half making him a non-factor in the first 20 minutes. All the junior big man did was return and dominate the second half as the Wildcats outscored the Commodores 43-27.
Now the stage is set for a monster SEC game on the Plains.
Kentucky put up 71 points in 66 possessions while averaging 1.08 points per trip. The Wildcats shot 5o percent from two-point range (23 of 46) while hitting going just 3 of 10 from beyond the arc. UK made 16 of 19 free throws but 13 turnovers with six coming from Ashton Hagans really held the offense back in a game where possessions were limited by Vanderbilt in certain situations. After posting nothing in the first half, Kentucky’s star took over in next 20 minutes.
Nick Richards finished the night with 15 points and 11 rebounds while making 7 of 11 shots from the floor. It was the junior’s ninth double-double of the season and his plus/minus of +16 was the highest on the team by at least eight points. He strengthened his SEC Player of the Year campaign and is making a legit run at All-American honors.
Tyrese Maxey has been in a funk really ever since SEC play started scoring just over 13 points once since that explosion against Louisville for 27 points. It’s not uncommon to see Calipari’s star freshman hit this wall, but the second half performance against Vanderbilt just might shake the rookie from Garland, Texas out of it.
The dynamic combo guard finished with 17 points on 10 shot attempts with two three-point makes. Maxey did a good job getting to the free throw line and he finished when he played downhill despite some early turnovers. With Ashton Hagans tagged with four fouls with over five minutes left, Maxey settled the team and ran the offense in crunch time. This is the production Kentucky must have for them to reach their ceiling.
It was a rough night for Ashton Hagans on the offensive end for the second game in a row with five turnovers, but he did score 12 points on six shots in addition to dropping six assists. He can be a roller coaster. Immanuel Quickley did not hit a three and went just 3 of 11 from two-point range as he was UK’s most ineffective player in the game. He is now shooting just 41.3 percent on two-point shots and that’s not what you need from a guy with over 100 attempts.
EJ Montgomery slowly continues to grow with Kentucky still searching for answers at the four spot. The sophomore scored nine points on five shots with four rebounds in 26 minutes. It’s not much, but he was active and involved .
Nate Sestina hit a three for the sixth time in seven games, but the senior has not played more than 21 minutes since first SEC game of the season. Keion Brooks Jr. continues to struggle after playing just 11 minutes, but Johnny Juzang gave the Wildcats energy in his 15 minutes. He missed both of his threes and is now shooting 17.4 percent (4 of 23) from deep, but UK has desperately needed the energy and hustle plays he brings off the bench.
Kentucky allowed 62 points on 66 possessions with Vanderbilt posting 0.94 points per trip. The Wildcats now rank second in SEC play in defensive efficiency despite ranking last in turnover rate. After a very hot shooting start, Vandy went cold in the second 20 minutes making just seven field goals with a 4 of 14 mark from the three-point line. Two-point defense has been a struggle for Kentucky at times this season, but the Commodores went just 3 0f 13 inside the arc in the second half and that was the biggest reason they were able to pull away.
Saben Lee led Jerry Stackhouse’s club with 21 points on 13 shots and gave Vandy a shot at the upset. Kentucky really did not have answer for him early in the game. Despite the production from their leading scorer, Vanderbilt didn’t have one second chance point and made just 11 free throws. It’s hard to beat Kentucky with those numbers.
Despite the final box score with some bad second half numbers for Vanderbilt, it never really felt like a great game for Kentucky’s defense. They didn’t block shots and were unable to force turnovers most of the night against a group that labors on offense. Some hot shooting powered Vanderbilt to an early lead, but UK was able to take over the game by extending their defense in the second half and shutting down the paint with Nick Richards in the lineup. That forced Vandy to hoist more threes and the law of averages caught up with them.
Playing To Their Competition
Beginning with the Evansville loss, we have seen too many times this Kentucky team play down to their level of competition and that has caused them to be in much closer games than they should be in. The home win against Vanderbilt was just another example of that.
Per KenPom, UK has found themselves in seven games against sub-90 teams where they were unable to win by double-digits. In three of those instances (Evansville, Utah, South Carolina), Kentucky walked away from the hardwood holding a loss while they’ve found themselves in close home games against Utah Valley, Missouri and Vanderbilt. At some point you have to learn to put teams away.
When you look at some of the advanced stat profiles for Kentucky, they currently do not grade out well (sitting at No. 32 in KenPom after starting SEC play at No. 15) because of all of these instances. In the NCAA Tournament, it’s a one-and-done situation and you cannot mess with your food. Kentucky must get better at taking care of the opponent in front of them instead of coming out flat.
After seven SEC games, Kentucky currently sits at 6-1 and is just a game behind LSU for first place. However, the month of January is now over and many of the best teams in the SEC await in February. After that tough Las Vegas trip, Kentucky aced its schedule starting with the Louisville home game prior to New Year’s. If it wasn’t for that upset loss to South Carolina powered by a banked in three at the buzzer, people would be talking about Kentucky as one of the current best teams in the country.
Now, however, it’s time to step up to the big boy table. The Wildcats are back on the road for a very tough game in Auburn before hosting a Mississippi State team that could provide all kinds of matchup issues with their big front court. After that is a road trip to Knoxville and John Calipari has yet to beat Rick Barnes in Thompson-Boling Arena. Kentucky has a tough couple of weeks on the schedule before they can get to what will be a huge game in Baton Rouge against LSU on February 18th.
Yesterday highlighted the fact that Kentucky still has some flaws, but they know one thing for certain. When they do not have Nick Richards on the floor they are very beatable and he is the difference maker for this basketball team. The junior makes things so much easier for the four surrounding players despite not needing the ball in his hands to be effective. How John Calipari manages the star’s foul situations will play a very important role in how successful this team can be.
On to Auburn.