Wasn't Pretty But UK Downs Vanderbilt in Nashville
NASHVILLE—The context framing No. 14 Kentucky’s 71-62 win over Vanderbilt will ultimately prove more important than the game it framed. The Wildcats won, and road wins in the Southeastern Conference (read: road wins in any league) are important, and wins at Memorial Gym are especially important because the building is weird and young players tend to act weirdly in weird environments.
But Saturday’s game is best viewed outside the vacuum of Memorial Gym. Kentucky (12-3, 2-0) didn’t learn much about itself in the process of beating a team that it should have beaten by more than nine points. Indeed, the Commodores did well to do how they did. They started the season already depleted with just nine scholarship players, then one (center Josh Henderson) blew out his knee in December, then leading scorer Eric McClellan was suspended for the season on Wednesday—a suspension that lasted less than 48 hours before he was permanently kicked off the team.
Down to seven scholarship players, Vanderbilt didn’t have much to work with Saturday. And then foul trouble came in the first half. Rod Odom picked up two fouls in the first six minutes of the game, then he picked up his third with 7:34 before halftime, re-inserted into the game because Kevin Stallings didn’t really have much other choice. He had two walk-ons on the bench, but neither played. Stallings’ current active roster, including walk-ons, is nine players. For context, John Calipari played 10 players at least five minutes Saturday.
Vanderbilt made a game of it as long as it could, and it proved it could still stick to a game plan and not let itself get blown out. After 40 minutes, Vanderbilt was down 71-62 (of course, at that point, the game ended), and it had generally sat in that margin for the last stage of the game. The Wildcats took a 30-20 lead on a Jarrod Polson 3-pointer with 30 seconds until halftime, and the final 20:30 of the game were played within a margin of five to 14 points, and even then it mostly sat between eight and 13.
Kentucky didn’t really have a single player hot enough to go on a tear and pull away in one big stretch—neither of the top two candidates for such an explosion, Julius Randle (seven points and 11 rebounds, but sat out much of the second half with leg cramps and only scored one point after halftime) or James Young (six points on 2-of-10 shooting) played well—and the team wasn’t clicking enough to put together a huge run collectively; Kentucky’s second half Wednesday against Mississippi State comes to mind as an example, and that did not happen Saturday.
The one area in which the Wildcats proved clearly superior was in rebounding. They out-rebounded Vanderbilt 41-28, and they limited Vanderbilt to a total of five offensive rebounds. One offensive rebound every eight minutes is no way to close a manageable margin against a better team not playing nearly its best.
“In my opinion, I don’t think they’re that much better than us,” Vanderbilt guard Kyle Fuller said. “But at some point you have to be a bully, or somebody has to hit the bully in the mouth, and I felt like we didn’t do that.”
The Wildcats can be bullies—in the purest competitive basketball sense, that is—and they have been before. They were Wednesday, and they will be again at some point in SEC play. There will be games like Saturday’s. You’ve watched countless games like them, and you know you have, but you can’t remember which ones they were. Forgettable wins are wins, and the context of the 40 minutes of game-time played Saturday—hey, a win!—mean more than any lessons one could deduce from the tepid play on the court against a team stretched to its competitive limits.