Offense at a premium as ‘Dores host Kentucky on Saturday

In Features by Robbie Weinstein

After a disappointing collapse against Tennessee in which Vanderbilt scored well but couldn’t defend, the Commodores could find the opposite true against Kentucky on Saturday.

Tennessee’s unconventional but productive frontcourt of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield made Tuesday’s game one to forget for Commodore fans, but the good news is Kentucky doesn’t present the same challenges.

Williams (6’7”, 241 pounds) and Schofield (6’5”, 238) pushed around Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson and Clevon Brown and used their craft inside to finish over the bigger defenders. Williams went back to the well countless times and finished 46 percent of the Volunteers’ possessions while in the game, one of the highest values we’ll see all year.

The Wildcats, while talented, won’t bring that same type of physicality and polish to Memorial Gym.

Head coach Bryce Drew’s frontcourt trio won’t get pushed around like on Tuesday, and Vanderbilt will hope that translates into fewer high-percentage shots around the rim for the Wildcats.

“We have to rebound. We’re gonna have to take away easy points in the paint,” Drew said. “We’ve had career nights for two bigs (Grant Williams and Chris Silva) our last two games. We’ve gotta do a better job making them earn points a little bit harder.”

Vanderbilt, however, will still have to deal with the length and athleticism of Sacha Killeya-Jones, Nick Richards, and Wenyen Gabriel. Kentucky blocks 15 percent of opponents’ two-point attempts (21st nationally, according to KenPom.com), which shouldn’t be a surprise considering coach John Calipari’s roster.

Only 24 teams in all of Division I get a higher percent of their two-pointers blocked than Vanderbilt, meaning the ‘Dores will need to buck a couple of trends to have any success in the paint. Interestingly, only one major-conference team has a worse block rate: Kevin Stallings’ Pitt Panthers.

While the frontcourt battle will be an interesting one to watch, Saben Lee will have his biggest test since the Commodores faced Virginia and its pack-line defense in November.

Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the premier defensive guards in the SEC, and Lee hasn’t experienced a direct, one-on-one matchup against a guard with Gilgeous-Alexander’s tools. The 6’6” Canadian freshman only weighs 180 pounds, but his huge wingspan (reportedly close to 7’) makes him a disruptive force as an on-ball defender.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s 4.1 percent steal rate ranks 31st nationally, and Lee will have quite the job getting by the Kentucky freshman or shooting over his length. Along with Hamidou Diallo (another big guard with a 7’ wingspan), Gilgeous-Alexander is a big reason Kentucky plays some of the best three-point defense around. Not only do the Wildcats discourage opponents from taking threes (opponents rank 292nd in the country in the proportion of threes attempted to total shots attempted, per KenPom), but UK only allows 29.8 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Coupled with the aforementioned issues for Vanderbilt around the rim, it’s easy to see why the Commodores could struggle to score Saturday.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Vanderbilt held a double-digit halftime lead on Tuesday for a reason, and Kentucky actually ranks 10 spots below Tennessee in KenPom’s team ratings.

The ‘Cats don’t have a single knock-down shooter on their roster, so Vanderbilt could find success backing off UK on the perimeter, going under screens, and attempting to keep Baptiste around the basket as much as possible.

Kentucky only ranks around 100th nationally in both two-point and three-point percentage, and none of its best statistical shooters take even three three-pointers per game. We aren’t talking about a particularly explosive offensive team. Calipari’s squad can hurt Vanderbilt on the boards, but defensive rebounding has been a relative strength of Drew’s team this year with the improvement of Matthew Fisher-Davis.

The biggest problem might be finding a hiding spot for Riley LaChance. It’s hard to see him guarding the much bigger and more explosive Gilgeous-Alexander, and Diallo uses more possessions than anyone else on Kentucky’s team.

Clearly, Vanderbilt will need LaChance’s offense; can Drew find a creative way to keep him from getting exposed defensively?

Going to a zone is one option, but that makes Vanderbilt even more vulnerable against Kentucky’s offensive rebounders and surely would lead to more fouls from Baptiste.

Perhaps Kentucky’s young guards will get sped up and lose composure on the road, committing unforced turnovers. That would certainly help Vanderbilt’s cause, and the ‘Cats do turn the ball over on nearly 20 percent of possessions. But at that point, the Commodores are relying on luck.

Vanderbilt has enough matchup advantages (or at least fewer disadvantages compared to Tuesday’s loss) to earn a win here.

The Commodores’ resolve will be tested after such a brutal loss to Tennessee, and they’ll likely need their seniors to step up. Roberson, LaChance, and Fisher-Davis have the ability to outplay Kentucky’s freshmen on a given day simply by virtue of having three extra years of experience, and Drew will need them on Saturday.

“They’ve seen a lot of things in their four years here,” Drew said. “… I think that they’re at a maturity where they understand this is their last couple months of college basketball, and they want to go out on a good note.”

Robbie Weinstein is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt now studying at Northwestern’s graduate journalism program. A native of Dayton, Ohio, he served as the sports editor for the Vanderbilt Hustler during the 2016-17 school year and has covered Vanderbilt basketball for three years. He currently works as a game-night PR assistant for the Chicago Bulls.