Kentucky and Vanderbilt are set to battle in Nashville this evening and the two operators of this blog have two different gut feelings. I have Kentucky pegged as my winner. 49ways’ gut tells him it’s Vandy. Both of us acknowledge that either team could win by 10 or more, but the difference in our guts makes for good blog fodder. With no real outline in mind, we give our reasonings below.
I went to bed last night thinking: that my gut feeling about Kentucky winning had been reduced (Memorial Magic was starting to sink in)
I woke up this morning thinking: that the reduction in instinct had been replaced with a little more confidence in the Cats.
Reasons why Vandy could win: There are too many to list but I’ll try anyway. First, this is a home game in the nation’s quirkiest gym, where the Commodores are undefeated this season. Secondly, Vandy is experienced with several upperclassmen, not to be overlooked when a battle of this magnitude requires so much togetherness. Thirdly, Stallings is an excellent coach and I have no doubt he learned plenty from the loss to UK three weeks ago. Lastly, it might just be time for Kentucky to lose. I mean, the 95-96 Kentucky team had two losses and that is regarded as the best team in NCAA history. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking Kentucky will finish the season with only one loss.
Reasons why my gut says Kentucky anyway: Vanderbilt came into Rupp Arena three weeks ago riding a ten game winning streak. They were a half-game ahead of Kentucky with a chance to pad their East Division lead. What proceeded was a Kentucky obliteration, where Kentucky went on cruise control the entire second half. You can flip that script and say “yeah, but Vandy is at home this time” so it’s totally different. I must admit, freshmen playing in Memorial Gym is not a great recipe for success. I just tend to think that Kentucky is psychologically ready for this game. They were tested at USC and lost. When they were tested again in a violent road atmosphere at Mississippi State (probably the highest octane crowd “The Hump” has ever seen) they came back from 7 points down with under 3 minutes to play to win in overtime. They even seemed to thrive on the crowds angst. It’s one thing to play timid on the road. It’s another to have the kind of character on your team that wants to face beast that is a rowdy road atmosphere. I think UK turned the corner psychologically, and when you combine that with the knowledge that they beat a hot Vandy team once already….well, you can see why my gut feels the way it feels.
Pick: Kentucky 75, Vanderbilt 70
I need to get this out quickly before the game starts. Obviously, both of these teams are very good. They’re well-coached, and they have excellent talent. Honestly, this game could go either way, but my money is going with Vanderbilt. Looking at stats, anyone would go with Kentucky. But this contest features two things way more important than stats – the Memorial Gymnasium crowd and the incredible mind of Kevin Stallings.
Why I like Vandy: It’s no secret that Kevin Stallings is my favorite college basketball coach (well, maybe second favorite, but we’ll save that for another article). This man knows how to get the most out of his players as he has earned their respect in such an admirable way. He knows how to strategize and for the most part, he gets his players to execute his game plan. And that’s where I think he will excel today. I fully expect Stallings to implement a game plan to exploit the Wildcat’s weaknesses. Look for a 3-2 zone defense, and look for Vandy’s guards to not hit the offensive glass with the intention of slowing down Kentucky’s transition offense. Offensively, I think Vandy will try to spread the floor with two things in mind: bombard Kentucky with deep balls (Kentucky struggled early in the season guarding the three) and create enough space to penetrate and get Big Blue in foul trouble.
And of course, you can’t overlook the aura of Memorial Gymnasium. Teams simply don’t like playing there. The benches are in quirky positions, and it gets LOUD. Certainly, one of college basketball’s most unusual venues, and Vanderbilt takes full advantage of it as they are undefeated at home this year.
Why Kentucky can win: Because they’re freakin good, that’s why. I still maintain that this is the most talented team in America. They have excellent depth, superb athleticism, two big men who can control the paint, and two guards who are freakishly fast, quick and athletic. On top of that, throw in a ridiculous coaching staff, and what you have is a team that will be well-prepared for any match up. Notice how I said coaching staff. If you know anything about basketball, you’ll realize that it’s Rod Strickland who molds these point guards into fine NBA players (a tribute for him is coming soon).
Kentucky just needs to keep doing what is does. Get out in transition, dump it into Cousins, defend the lane, and score lots of points! But they have to be careful to not let the Memorial crowd get in their heads. Play with composure. Forget about turnovers. Ignore the referees. Tune out the crazy fans. For Kentucky, this game may be more mental than physical. How will they respond to their most hostile environment to date?
Pick: Vanderbilt 68, Kentucky 61