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The CoachCal.com keys to victory: Vanderbilt

The Kentucky Wildcats (11-3, 1-0) make the short but always tough trip south to Nashville to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-5, 0-1) in UK’s first Southeastern Conferece road encounter.

Introducing the Vanderbilt Commodores

The basics

What: No. 14/16 Kentucky (11-3) vs. Vanderbilt (8-5)
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Memorial Gymnasium (14,316)
Preview: Cats can’t feel sorry for Vandy’s depth with problems of their own
Feature: He’s passing up shots, but Hawkins doing what UK’s asking him to do
Video: Hawkins, Cauley-Stein recap MSU, look ahead to Vandy
Video: Cal’s pre-Vanderbilt presser

The Coach — In his 15th year as head of the Vanderbilt Commodore basketball program, Kevin Stallings has, along with Forida head coach Billy Donovan, become the dean of SEC coaches at a school that enjoyed only meager success on the hardwood prior to his arrival from Illinois State. The two-time SEC Coach of the Year (2007, 2010) became Vandy’s all-time winningest coach with a victory over Lipscomb in November of 2013, passing Roy Skinner for that honor. In 2012, Stallings led the ‘Dores to their first SEC Tournament championship since 1951 when his squad beat the national champion Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC title tilt. Stallings has won 285 games at Vanderbilt and has led the Commodores to six NCAA tourneys in his 14 complete seasons, including the last three straight, another school record.

The Players — With the dismissal of its leading scorer, 6-foot-4 sophomore Eric McClellan, Vanderbilt is left with only seven scholarship players. Rod Odom, a 6-9 junior forward, is the most dangerous offensive weapon the ‘Dores now have, as he leads the team in scoring (13.8 points per game), rebounding (6.1 per game) and 3-point shooting accuracy (46.3 percent). The basketball term “stretch four” was coined because of players like Odom. Because of his combination of terrific inside play and strong perimeter game, Odom is able to pull an opposition’s big man away from the basket, loosening up the middle for his Commodore teammates. Damian Jones, a 6-10 freshman center, is also one of those players. Jones, who nets 10.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, is an athletic big man capable of giving UK trouble. Senior point guard Kyle Fuller’s 3.7 assists per game leads the ‘Dores, and he also kicks in 10.0 points per game. Dai-Jon Parker, a 6-3 junior guard, has started nine games this season and made 14 of 31 from behind the arc (45.2 percent).

TV/Radio coverage

TV: CBS
Radio: UK IMG
Online audio: All-access
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog: CoachCal.com

The Schedule — All five of Vandy’s losses have been close games, as the ‘Dores have gone down to Butler in overtime, 85-77, Providence, 67-60, Texas, 70-64, St. Louis, 57-49, and Alabama 68-63. Vanderbilt’s eight wins have come against Georgia State, 86-80, Lipscomb, 80-69, Morgan State, 75-66, Loyola Marymount, 77-68, Marshall, 69-67, Austin Peay, 58-56, Georgia Tech, 76-63, and Northeastern, 79-49.

Keys to Victory

Tame Memorial Magic — It’s always tough playing at Memorial Gymnasium. Whether a team is young or experienced, the layout of the place remains the same (and the crowd is consistently boisterous). The Cats, though, under John Calipari have played well in Nashville despite all four of Cal’s previous teams being so dependent on first-year players. Over the last 10 years, UK posted a 4-6 mark at Vanderbilt, but three of those wins have come since Cal arrived, giving the Cats a 3-1 record when playing at Vandy under Cal’s leadership.

Vanderbilt File

Record: 8-5
Head coach: Kevin Stallings (285-181 at Vanderbilt)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Commodores
Player to watch: Rod Odom (13.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Series history: UK leads 138-46
Last meeting: Vandy won 64-48 on March 15 in the SEC Tournament

In today’s game, the Cats breaking from the gate quickly would help settle the crowd into their seats and off their feet and allow UK to dampen the 14,000-plus Vandy fans’ early-game enthusiasm. But to get that early lead, UK must make good decisions with the basketball and establish its low-post presence. And with the benches being on the end lines instead of the sidelines, it’s difficult, if not impossible for a player to hear Cal’s voice much less make out what he’s saying when players and coach are separated by a minimum of 50 feet, a predicament made more tenuous because only one Kentucky starter has ever played in Memorial Gym.

Perimeter shooting — Over the last five games, UK has shot the ball poorly from beyond the arc, connecting on only 23.4 percent of its 3-point attempts, while in the first nine games of the year the Cats were accurate on 33.6 percent of their 3-point shots.  Obviously, neither number is outstanding, and UK’s continued lack of consistent shooting from the perimeter will result in opponents sagging down into the lane clogging up Julius Randle, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein’s ability to earn UK points in the paint, which is the team’s bread and butter. Because of increased familiarity, conference coaches are more likely to successfully exploit a team’s weakness effectively, bringing a sense of urgency to the hardwood for the Cats. While Memorial Gym is not the easiest place to shoot, a strong shooting performance in a hostile environment could push the Cats’ confidence up a notch or two, potentially leading to better outside shooting going forward.

Own the paint — Kentucky musts own the boards, own points in the paint and own second-chance points in this afternoon’s contest. With the Wildcats struggling from the perimeter, it is becoming increasingly important for UK’s big men to be productive on the offensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt counters Kentucky’s bigs with a nice set of low post players in Jones, Odom, and 6-7 redshirt junior James Siakam, and how productive UK’s big men are, compared to Vandy’s tall timber, will be a key element in determining today’s winner.

Key Matchup

Rod Odom vs. UK’s defense — Odom is a unique player; lengthy yet athletic, quick, and dangerous from beyond 19 feet, nine inches. Kentucky could go in a few different directions when deciding how to guard Vandy’s best player — put a smaller, possibly quicker player on Odom, say James Young — or the Cats could counter with size and strength — say Poythress or Randle — in an attempt to limit Odom’s touches. Or, a combination of Wildcats could try their hand at stopping the inside-outside threat that Odom presents. Whichever way Calipari opts to go, whichever Wildcat is charged with slowing down Odom, it’s the Kentucky team which will have to stop him. Stallings will employ both on- and off-ball screens to free up Odom, making UK’s switches and its ability to get into passing lanes important in disrupting any potential rhythm Odom might get into.

Trends

  • James Young is averaging 4.5 assists and only 2.0 turnovers in the last two ball games.
  • Over the last five games, Willie Cauley-Stein has connected on 19-of-25 shots, good for 76.0 percent.
  • Aaron Harrison has made only 2-of-16 shots from beyond arc over the last five contests (12.5 percent).
  • In his last four games, Alex Poythress has connected on 13-of-20 shots from the field, good for 65.0 percent. During that time, Poythress is averaging 8.0 points per game.
  • Over the last three games, Julius Randle has been true on only 18-of-29 free throws (62.1 percent).
  • Andrew Harrison is averaging 12.6 points per game over the last five contests, but UK’s point guard has dished only four assists versus nine turnovers in the last three games.
  • In his last 23 minutes of action (covering three games), Dakari Johnson has scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and handed out one assist.

Team stats

UK Vanderbilt
Scoring offense 81.1 (29) 70.2
Scoring defense 66.1 (70) 66.5 (80)
FG percentage 47.9 (49) 46.5 (91)
FG percentage defense 38.3 (19) 40.9 (83)
3-point percentage 30.0 (321) 34.9 (140)
3-point percentage defense 30.7 (60) 27.9 (12)
FT percentage 66.3 (264) 64.3 (303)
Rebound margin +12.6 (4) +3.3 (107)
Steals per game 4.1 (337) 5.0 (298)
Blocks per game 7.1 (4) 4.4 (101)
Assists per game 12.7 (196) 13.7 (128)
Turnover margin -1.8 (287) -3.5 (329)
kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rank 7 179
Kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency rank 39 51

*parentheses indicate national ranking

Individual leaders

UK Vanderbilt
Points per game Julius Randle (17.4) Rob Odom (13.8)
Rebounds per game Julius Randle (10.9) Rod Odom (6.1)
Field-goal percentage Willie Cauley-Stein (64.6) James Siakam (59.6)
3-point percentage James Young (33.3) Dai-Jon Parker (45.2)
Free-throw percentage Aaron Harrison (75.8) Kyle Fuller (80.0)
Assists per game Andrew Harrison (3.3) Kyle Fuller (3.7)
Blocks per game Willie Cauley-Stein (3.9) Damian Jones (1.2)
Steals per game Willie Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison (1.1) James Siakam (1.0)

The Wrap-up

Tip-off is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET, with television coverage provided by CBS. As always, stay tuned to CoachCal.com as we provide complete pre-, in-, and postgame coverage of each Wildcats’ contest.