The Black & Gold Standard is a VandyRadio sports blog featuring nuanced commentary and advanced statistical breakdowns following Vanderbilt men’s basketball games and throughout the year. Robbie Weinstein of The Homefield Advantage will be bringing you the best analysis of Commodore basketball as the team looks to build on the success of last season’s NIT appearance. Check out The Black & Gold Standard for all kinds of new content as the Dores fight through the 2015-16 schedule. All stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
For the first time in a while, Vanderbilt’s NCAA Tournament life is unequivocally in its own hands. The Commodores may have needed 80-foot and 30-foot buzzer beaters to overcome its miserable track record on the road in a win at Florida, but they got what amounts to a season-changing win nonetheless. VU now is back in a position where they likely need only hold serve the rest of the way to lock up an NCAA bid; win the two remaining home games while avoiding a bad loss in the SEC Tournament and the Commodores will almost certainly return to the Tournament after a three season hiatus.
While defeating Kentucky at home technically does qualify as holding serve, VU will likely be only a slight favorite over the Wildcats and can’t get away with a poor performance against a UK team that has won five of its past six games. A loss to Kentucky probably means the ‘Dores need a couple of SEC Tournament wins unless they plan on knocking off Texas A&M on the road to end the regular season, so this hardly represents a “free shot” where a loss holds few consequences.
Let’s take a look at how the two teams matchup as Vanderbilt hopes to reverse its miserable performance in the 76-57 loss in Lexington January 23.
- Kentucky starting big man Derek Willis hurt his right ankle in UK’s loss at Texas A&M last weekend, and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to go Saturday after missing the Wildcats’ win over Alabama on Tuesday. Willis didn’t show much against Vandy in the teams’ first meeting with seven points on 2-8 shooting, but the ‘Dores are better served with him on the bench due to his ability to stretch the defense (44% three point shooting). Alex Poythress had no issue finishing over VU’s length in the first meeting with his 8-9 shooting from two point range, but he’s coming off a back issue. If either Willis or Poythress are slowed by their injuries, Vandy has an advantage in the frontcourt. That advantage, however, disappears if Damian Jones and Luke Kornet can’t avoid foul trouble.
- Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray are both on fire for UK, as Murray has risen all the way to tenth in Ken Pomeroy’s National Player of the Year rankings while Ulis has dished out 10.2 assists per game over the past six contests. Ulis’ defense seemed to fluster Wade Baldwin in the first matchup and UK’s diminutive sophomore point guard scored 21 points on 9-14 shooting to boot. “(Ulis) is great,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said Thursday prior to practice. “There are no weaknesses in his game. He’s a great defender, he has a great basketball mentality and IQ, he has great skill level, he has great heart in terms of his desire to win and desire to compete. He’s a stud; that guy is terrific.” Wade has something to prove after putting together one of the worst performances of his college career in Lexington (1-9 from the field, five turnovers), as NBA scouts will be looking to see how his questionable ball handling holds up against UK’s pressure this time around.
- In Kentucky’s six road losses this season, John Calipari’s squad has surrendered 83.3 points per game (granted two of the losses came in overtime). VU’s offense has clicked since the demoralizing road loss to Texas to end January, scoring at least 1.10 points per possession (an excellent mark) in each game but the disappointing performance at Ole Miss. These two trends suggest that the Commodore offense will have its chances to get untracked on Saturday, and an offensive avalanche or two that ignites the (hopefully pro-Vandy) crowd could be the difference. Similar to the win at Florida, this may be another game where the ‘Dores basically need to shoot for 90 and hope an explosion on the offensive end can carry them through. Kentucky’s lackluster road defense suggests an 80+ point Vanderbilt performance is within the realm of possibility.
- I’m a fan of Jeff Roberson and his future as a Commodore, but the idea that he’s become Vanderbilt’s most consistent player (I’ve heard this from multiple people) is ludicrous. Roberson has scored five points or less in eight of his 27 games, with most of these duds coming against strong competition like Kansas, Texas, and Dayton. The Commodore forward was one of only a couple guys to have an okay game in the first matchup with Kentucky, and VU really needs him to play decently on Saturday; knock down a couple of open threes, get a key rebound or two, play solid, conservative defense and that’s all the team needs. It’s incumbent upon Vanderbilt’s stars to carry the team to victory Saturday so that Roberson can stay within his role, where he has excelled for the vast majority of the season.
- One bracket note: wins over UK and UT coupled with a loss at A&M to finish the regular season put VU at 19-12 with an approximate RPI of 51 according to rpiwizard.com. Interestingly enough, 21 of the 37 up to date brackets on bracketmatrix.com currently have the Commodores in the Tournament, which is a great sign for their at-large hopes. In the matter of a week VU has gone from almost out of the picture to two or three more good games from clinching a bid. That’s a promising turn of events for a team that I felt lacked confidence and togetherness the last couple of weeks. “(Making the NCAA Tournament) has been by dream forever,” Damian Jones said before practice Thursday. “Just trying to make it happen.” Damian was in great spirits compared to how players seemed in recent days, and he suggested his uptick in play is a product of taking it upon himself to carry the team to the Tournament. I’d be genuinely surprised if Damian doesn’t look good Saturday, and there’s a chance we’ll see the signature performance of his Vanderbilt career.
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