Kentucky showed the toughness that John Calipari has been searching for as they snuck past Texas A&M 74-73 at Rupp Arena on Wednesday night. The win dropped the Aggies to 0-3 in conference play, a record that looked unlikely when Texas A&M was ranked No. 5 in the top 25 poll on Christmas Day. Next up for Kentucky is a trip to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt.
Here are the three keys to this one:
Work the ball inside
Play in the paint may not have been Kentucky’s strongest suit this season, but on Saturday they play a Vanderbilt squad that has zero ability to defend the basketball inside.
Last time out the Commodores allowed Tennessee power forward Grant Williams to score a career-high 37 points. The game before that, South Carolina star Chris Silva – all 6-foot-9 of him – scored 27 points on Vandy by ruthlessly abusing their interior defenders. With seven-footer Luke Kornet having moved on, the Commodores have nothing in their armory to stop big, aggressive, hardworking players in the paint from scoring at will.
This is not a game to get cute. Calipari needs to use his four players that are 6-foot-9 or taller and take advantage of this obvious weakness. Rotate until a good matchup – or a hot hand – is found, then ride that for the rest of the game.
Make those pressure free throws
It might be a case that Kentucky doesn’t have to make any pressure free throws against Vanderbilt. There is certainly a chance that the Wildcats will have used their obvious advantage inside to build a lead that the Commodores can’t run down over the final few minutes of the game.
Given the way that Kentucky shot free throws against Texas A&M, this would be to the Wildcats advantage.
Kentucky was up by five points with less than a minute left against the Aggies after a PJ Washington layup. Veteran, savvy teams would have taken this lead and ridden it home. Kentucky though is still young and prone to the mistakes and issues that come with playing so many freshmen. Missing four of six free throws down the stretch gave the Aggies a chance to win this game that shouldn’t have been there. Making free throws will be massive in March, so Kentucky may as well get into that habit right now.
Ignore the Commodores record
If Kentucky strolls into this game expecting to win just by showing up then the Wildcats will be in trouble. The 6-10 Commodores may be four games below .500 on the season, but that is not an altogether accurate representation of their skill level on the court.
Last time out against Tennessee the Commodores scored 84 points, their highest total of the season. In Saben Lee they have an exciting young guard that puts up big points totals and always seems to show up for the biggest games. They have a bevy of three-point shooters and an all-around stat monster in Jeff Roberson who would be one of the most talked about players in the SEC if he were ever able to play his natural position (Roberson is often shifted to center because of the ’Dores lack of size).
Vanderbilt was also up by 10 on Tennessee in the second half earlier this week. This isn’t a team that has given up on the season and they could prove to be a dangerous foe.