ESPN’s College Gameday returns to Nashville this Saturday, with the focus on an 8:00 pm Central game between Vanderbilt and top-ranked Kentucky, following a 6:00 Eastern game between Michigan State and Ohio State in Columbus. It’s a big night for college basketball– particularly ALDLAND’s brand of college basketball– and because I’ve been to Columbus once and have no immediate desire to return, we’re taking you live to Memorial Gym for the late game.
Both Kentucky and Vanderbilt had high expectations before the season started, ranked #2 and #7, respectively, and while the Wildcats currently are surpassing those expectations, the Commodores have faltered. There are two main donkeys on which the tails of their struggles can be pinned: 1) knee injuries to big-man Festus Ezeli, and 2) a lack of bench support. These two rationales also provide good (and mostly legitimate) smokescreens for what Vandy fans fear may be behind their team’s difficulties: the apparent mental weakness that has kept this group from rising to its physical potential in past years. One sign that this spectre is fading is the pleasantly aggressive and frequently commanding performance of Jeffrey Taylor.
UK comes into Saturday night on a tear. They are 11-0 in SEC play, and they generally have been demolishing their opponents. I saw their most recent game, which was a comfortable win over Florida, a team that itself had a mostly comfortable win over Vanderbilt just last weekend. Vandy, meanwhile, comes limping– literally, in Ezeli’s case– into this game, with Wednesday night’s home win over LSU lukewarm comfort after consecutive eight-point losses to Florida and Arkansas. (The Razorbacks’ 81-59 loss to Georgia on Wednesday doesn’t help either.)
Before handing this post over to more accomplished previewers, a note on one similarity and one difference between these two teams. First, many have cited the Wildcats’ size as a factor in their success this season, but Vanderbilt actually matches up well with them physically. Second, Kentucky’s coach, John Calipari, is known for favoring young players, and this year’s starters– three freshman and two sophomores– track to that preference. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, starts a veteran crew: four seniors and one junior.
I’ve seen these two teams play twice before with mixed results. In 2008, the Commodores avenged a 79-73 double-overtime loss in Lexington by stunning the Wildcats 93-52 at Memorial Gym. I stunned myself with my own foolishness when I realized, after the game, that I’d locked my keys in my car and that, even in the Mid South, February is a cold month. Two years later, I saw these two again, when Vandy dropped a heartbreaker at home in 2010, losing by two points after missing multiple opportunites to seal a win or send the game into overtime. That was the most exciting game I’ve attended where the team I favored did not win.
Tomorrow’s game presents an even tougher test for Vanderbilt. I know Bilas is a Dookie of the first order, but if he says they can win, then it can be done. Plus, Vanderbilt has recent experience knocking of #1-ranked rival teams: they did it it to Tennessee in 2008.