February 3, 2010

Previewing Mississippi State at Vanderbilt

Mississippi State (16-5, 4-2) at Vanderbilt Commodores (15-4, 5-1)

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Central

Where: Memorial Gym, Nashville, TN

TV: SEC Network

Radio: Nashville: 104.5 FM

Rankings: Vanderbilt is 18th in the AP Poll and 20th in ESPN's; MSU is not ranked


The line: Vanderbilt by 6

Sagarin prediction: Mississippi State by 1

Pomeroy prediction: Vanderbilt 77, MSU 70 (VU has a 74 percent chance of winning)

RealTimeRPI.Com prediction: Vanderbilt 67, Kentucky 66

Series record: Kentucky leads 131-43; the Wildcats have won the last two in Lexington, and the teams split the series last year.

Ht. Wt. Cl. PPG RPG A/S/BPG Pos. No. Player Ht. Wt. Cl. PPG RPG A/S/BPG
0 Jermaine Beal 6-3 205 Sr. 13.7 2.6 3.2 a PG 11 John Wall 6-4 195 Fr. 17.1 3.7 6.3 a
1 Brad Tinsley 6-3 210 So. 7.1 2.7 3.1 a SG 24 Eric Bledsoe 6-1 190 Fr. 10.9 3.0 3.1 a
44 Jeffery Taylor 6-7 205 So. 14.1 5.3 1.2 s SF 1 Darius Miller 6-7 223 Sr. 7.5 2.7 1.9 a
24 Andre Walker 6-7 220 So. 6.3 5.5 2.6 a PF 54 Patrick Patterson 6-9 235 Jr. 15.4 7.9 0.9 b
4 A.J. Ogilvy 6-11 250 Jr. 13.8 6.1 1.7 b C 15 DeMarcus Cousins 6-11 260 Fr. 16.0 9.7 1.9 b
23 John Jenkins 6-4 215 Fr. 10.8 2.4 1.0 a G 34 DeAndre Liggins 6-6 202 So. 2.5 1.3 0.5 a
5 Lance Goulbourne 6-8 225 So. 3.3 2.3 0.5 b G/F 3 Darnell Dodson 6-7 215 So. 6.9 2.5 0.6 s
3 Festus Ezeli 6-11 255 Jr. 4.4 3.2 1.6 b C 33 Daniel Orton 6-10 255 Fr. 3.6 3.7 1.6 b

About the Wildcats

John Calipari's debut season in Lexington has been all Wildcat fans dreamed of… well, at least until Wednesday, when the top-ranked 'Cats fell in a stunning upset at South Carolina. Since Calipari's hire last spring, the former Memphis coach quickly assembled the nation's top recruiting class, and then preceded to win his first 19 games as Wildcat coach.

It's quite a turnaround from last year's UK team, which failed to make the NCAAs for the first time since the probation year of 1991; consequently Billy Gillispie was axed to make room for Calipari.

Calipari wasted little time in cleaning house with a few returning players to make room for one of the better recruiting classes in recent college basketball history. Calipari was able to retain Gillispie holdovers Daniel Orton (Rivals' 22nd-best recruit in this year's freshman class) and Jon Hood (40) while adding John Wall (No. 1), DeMarcus Cousins (2) and Eric Bledsoe (22).

Oh, and one of Calipari's biggest recruiting coups was convincing All-American sophomore Patrick Patterson to return for his junior year, though he wasn't so fortunate when the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer, Jodie Meeks, left for the NBA (he's now with Milwaukee).

So far, it's worked out incredibly well. Patterson's numbers are slightly down, but it's mostly because there's more help to go around; Wall is the odds-on favorite for national player of the year, Cousins would be a first team All-SEC selection if the season ended today, and the rest of the newcomers (that also includes JUCO transfer Darnell Dodson) have been good enough to push holdovers like Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris (third and fourth on last year's team in minutes played, respectively) to sixth and ninth this year.

In fact, playing time is so scarce that even Hood, a marquee recruit that Vanderbilt offered, has played only 61 minutes so far.

Calipari had called Wall an even better player than his college one-and-done'ers at Memphis, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans. It seemed like a crazy expectation to set for a player headed directly into the nation's biggest hoops fishbowl in Lexington, but Calipari has turned out to be exactly right.

You have to see Wall to believe him. He's faster with the ball that most players out without it. His ability to get to the hoop and finish is amazing. He leads the league in assists, ranks second in steals, is fifth in scoring, and hits foul shots at a 79.5 percent clip, and basically makes the game look easy at times.

If you want to find flaws, he has 75 turnovers and his outside shooting isn't particularly outstanding (37.5 percent), but they won't be enough to prevent him from being the top overall pick in this summer's NBA Draft.

Bledsoe's game is a lot like Wall's, and the Birmingham native would have been playing the point on most teams that didn't have Wall. He's UK's most accurate 3-point shooter (43.6 percent) and other than a turnover problem (he commits 3.7 per game) his freshman year has been very good.

Cousins has overtaken Patterson as UK's primary inside threat, Despite playing 228 fewer minutes than Patterson on the season, he's scored 11 more points and pulled 36 more rebounds than has UK's junior star. That's pretty impressive, considering Patterson's averages of 15.4 and 7.9 have him on course for another All-SEC year. Cousins also leads the league with a 57.4 percentage from the field.

As good as Cousins is, he's still immature; he tends to be hot-headed and foul prone, and could stand to improve his free throw percentage (66 percent) given the large number of attempts (a team-leading 127). But he's a monster defensive presence (he gets nearly a block every 10 minutes, and a steal nearly every 20) and will likely join Wall as a lottery pick after this season.

Patterson's numbers are down this year because others are around to carry more of the weight, but he leads the team with a 61 percent mark from the field--which is actually a point higher than he shoots from the line. Still, Patterson is a load, and may join Wall and Cousins in the lottery, as he'll almost certainly forego a final year at UK since he graduates in three years this spring.

Sophomore Darius Miller rounds out the starting five. He's a versatile player who leads UK in 3-pointers made (31) and is second in percentage (42.5).

Orton, a player who would start just about anywhere else, is UK's top reserve off the bench. He's even more effective than Cousins as a shot-blocker (1.6 per game in an average of 13.3 minutes). He came in as a disadvantage after missing his entire senior year of high school, but gives UK a lot of the same that Festus Ezeli gives Vandy, though Orton is a better passer and is less turnover-prone.

Dodson, Harris and DeAndre Liggins are Calipari's next-best reserves; all stand between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 and weigh between 202 and 218. Dodson is the team's top scorer and leader in minutes played among reserves. Liggins (a former four-star recruit) has begun to play more after missing the first 11 games, but hasn't really found a niche. Harris's best contributions come on the defensive end, and he is the Wildcats' third-best rebounder per minute played.

Calipari runs the "dribble-drive" offense, which emphasizes spreading the defense out and letting guards penetrate. It often leaves open shooters on the perimeter for kick-out passes, and though UK isn't known as a 3-point shooting team, it does rank second in the league in 3-point percentage (37.6).

Kentucky's size (by average height, they're the tallest team in the NCAA) also presents problems. The 'Cats lead the SEC by a mile in rebounding margin (9.6 per game) and rank second in the league in field goal percentage defense (37.8).

Breaking down the matchup

Do the Wildcats have more top-to-bottom talent on their roster than does Vanderbilt? Absolutely. Does UK have a sizeable home-court advantage? Absolutely. Does this mean Vanderbilt doesn't stand a chance? Absolutely not.

As good as the Wildcats have been, Vanderbilt is one of America's hottest teams, and hasn't been the least-intimated by road venues. The 'Dores are 4-1 in true road games in teams that are 38-5 at home in games not involving Vanderbilt, including Wednesday's nine-point victory over a Tennessee team that defeated No. 1 Kansas not long ago, and, of course, VU's 10-point win over the same South Carolina team that knocked UK from its undefeated perch earlier this week.

One potential problem for Vandy is Kentucky's size inside. Even when UK isn't hitting, UK's big men can decimate opponents with physical big men, and the 'Cats are one of the best offensive rebounding teams around.

Of course, part of Vandy's formula for winning a lot of games has also been using its size and strength to its advantage. So the play of A.J. Ogilvy and Ezeli inside--as well as their ability to stay out of foul trouble--will be one of the game's keys.

The bigger problem, however, may be stopping Wall and Bledsoe from getting into the lane. Vandy is primarily a man-to-man team, but has used zone with good success at times. With the double-whammy of the dribble-drive and VU's difficulty with handling penetrating guards, it wouldn't be surprising should VU coach Kevin Stallings choose to defend UK with a 2-3.

One place where Vandy does appear to have an advantage is in John Jenkins, who'll be the best shooter on the floor on Saturday. The 'Cats have the size in Orton and Cousin to play Ogilvy straight-up, but Ogilvy still can be a handful with his ability to drive opponents to the hoop.

The presence of Jenkins and Jermaine Beal, who was on fire from outside on Wednesday, will make choices difficult on UK's help-side defenders: do they help with Ogilvy and leave a shooter open, or do they risk leaving the foul-prone Cousins alone to handle Ogilvy?

While Vandy certainly does not rely on the outside shot as it once did, its ability to hit from the perimeter will be key or otherwise points inside become more difficult.

This is also a game where Andre Walker and Jeff Taylor need to be effective. Miller's ball-handling abilities make VU tougher against pressuring teams, and few can handle Taylor on the drive.

The pair will certainly make things more difficult inside for Kentucky, as the 'Cats won't face many teams that have Vandy's size. For Vandy, they'll need consistency out of Taylor, who dominates games for stretches at a time, but has also shown a tendency to get in foul trouble and disappear at others.

Beal's calmness under pressure is another thing the 'Cats won't see often. The senior seems to play better as the stakes get higher, and a game like the one he had in Knoxville makes VU that-much tougher to beat.

Though the 'Cats are perhaps America's most-talented team, it remains to be seen how they react to their first loss. UK is also one of the greenest teams in the country, and VU's experience and poise could potentially negate even the home-court advantage of Rupp if things are tight down the stretch.


Chris Lee: This could be one of college basketball's best games of the year. While UK has the talent to impose its will on anyone if things snowball for an opponent (for instance, early foul trouble from Ogilvy and Taylor), Vandy hasn't let anyone run away and hide from them all season, and hasn't shown even minor signs of being rattled on its 10-game winning streak.

I've gone back and forth on my pick. I'd decided on Kentucky, then flipped to Vanderbilt after remembering how I've underestimated them throughout conference play (I did predict losses to Florida and Tennessee, after all.)

After sorting through it all, I'm going to wimp out and take the percentage pick--after all, this is a game that UK can do most things that Vandy does well just as well as Vandy does them--but (how's this for having it both ways?) I would not be shocked to see VU pull an upset.

Chris's prediction: Kentucky 83, Vanderbilt 80

Mike Rapp:
We're about halfway through the SEC season, and you don't have to be Ken Pomeroy to devise which two teams are the best in the league. The Commodores lead the conference with an undefeated record, including two impressive road wins; The Wildcats were undefeated overall before the fell at South Carolina last weekend.

Pound-for-pound, the sheer volume of talent and athletic ability on the court today will be remarkable. One could stock an entire NBA franchise with the combined lineups of Vandy and Kentucky. I would not be surprised to see these two teams tipping off for a third time in the SEC Tournament title game in Nashville.

While Vanderbilt has experience and depth, there's no doubt Kentucky has the advantage of sheer athletic talent. That's no slight to Vandy; Calipari starts three true freshman who will likely be lottery picks.

Beal has been phenomenal during this winning streak, but no one has been able to guard Wall. Beal simply has to frustrate the freshman today, and get turnovers that lead to easy buckets. He can do it, and you can bet he'll want his final trip to the Bluegrass to be a memorable one.

Ogilvy has been a slow-starter for most of the season, and he can't be invisible today if Vandy has any chance at the upset. Likewise, Ezeli will be almost as important on the defensive end. If officials call this game as they usually do, though, it's going to be very difficult for both to stay out of foul trouble.

If Beal gets the better of Wall, and Ogilvy/Ezeli can stay off the bench, that still won't be enough to beat UK. Taylor and Jenkins simply have to step up and score points. Both have been relatively quiet of late, and Taylor has had an unusually difficult time with fouls and unforced turnovers.

As far as the game itself, let me just say what I'll always say about playing in Lexington: A team has to beat UK by 10 to win by 1. Call it one of the "grandest traditions" of the SEC. VU will probably be the best team UK has played so far this year, but the same is true for Vanderbilt. Is this Vandy team 10 points better than this Kentucky group? Not this year.

Mike's Prediction: Kentucky 85, Vanderbilt 78

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