Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- By the end of Saturday, all 31 conferences will have started league play for the season, and one of the last to start is the SEC, which features #42 Vanderbilt’s (11-3) trip to #54 Kentucky (11-4) to open the season.
Vanderbilt enters on a 6-game winning streak, but none of those wins have come over quality opponents. The Commodores’ best performances came in Cancun, where they beat Drake and VCU to claim the Cancun Challenge title. A close loss to Illinois doesn’t look bad, but dropping games to UIC and Georgia Tech isn’t too impressive. Similarly, Kentucky’s best wins came in a neutral-site tournament, beating Kansas St. and West Virginia in the Las Vegas Invitational. Their early season losses to VMI and North Carolina were joined by an early December loss to Miami and a late-game heart-breaker against Louisville.
These two teams are somewhat similar in their general strengths and weaknesses, with Kentucky the stronger in most areas. The Wildcats run at a very quick pace, generating a lot of successful attempts inside and from the free-throw line. Kentucky is among the best in the nation in both 2-point shooting (58%) and free throw shooting (78%), but its pace does make it vulnerable to turnovers, coughing up the ball nearly one out of every four times down the floor. Vanderbilt look to pose an interesting match-up for the Wildcat offense, as the Commodores have one of the nation’s best interior defenses, allowing opponents just 36% from two-point range. Vanderbilt doesn’t force many turnovers, but keeps opponents off the line and does well on the defensive glass.
Offensively, Vanderbilt is also strong inside and from the free throw line, but it is nowhere near as efficient in these areas as Kentucky is. Also, like the Wildcats, Vanderbilt often has trouble with turnovers. The problem for the Commodores is that Kentucky defends the interior just as well as they do, with opponents shooting under 40% from two against the Wildcats, who also do well on the defensive glass. Essentially, the match-up looks very similar on both sides of the ball, but Kentucky are better offensively without giving up anything on the defensive side.
Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson are Kentucky’s two most important players. Meeks is fifth in the nation in scoring, and he can do it from everywhere, a good inside scorer who attempts the majority of the Wildcats’ threes and is a 90% free throw shooter as well. Patrick Patterson doesn’t take quite as many shots, but is ruthlessly efficient, hitting over 70% of his attempts, one of the best percentages in the nation. He averages nearly 20-and-10 per game, and is third in the SEC in rebounding, a huge inside force. Kentucky’s problem has been finding effective complimentary players for their two stars. Perry Stevenson is a solid forward, second in the SEC in blocks and a decent option beside Patterson in the frontcourt. Kevin Galloway has been in the starting line-up, but has played just 11 minutes in his last three games. Michael Porter also starts in the backcourt, but he’s been a very poor shooter. DeAndre Liggins can be a useful player off the bench, leading the team in assists, but needs to cut out his three-point attempts, where he’s been abysmal. Freshman Darius Miller is another player who needs to find his shooting touch. Ramon Harris seems to still be recovering from a mid-December injury, when he is in form he is solid frontcourt player that will be of great help to Meeks and Patterson.
Vanderbilt has four starters that provide the bulk of their offense, with sophomore center A.J. Ogilvy taking the lead, first on the team in both scoring and rebounding. Ogilvy is a good inside scorer who is also very good at getting to the free throw line. Swedish freshman Jeffery Taylor starts alongside Ogilvy in the frontcourt, he’s been a solid shooter and rebounder who needs to ease up on his attempts from three. Another freshman, Brad Tinsley, starts in the backcourt, a good three-point shooter. Jermaine Beal has been a very efficient point guard, averaging 3.4 assists a game with a 2.3 A/TO ratio, while also showing a good long-range shot. Lance Goulbourne’s recent return from a bout of mono has provided the Commodores with a good backcourt scoring option, as junior George Drake hasn’t been doing well with his shot. Freshman forward Steve Tchiengang missed all of November with academic problems, but hasn’t been much of an offensive asset since, shooting under 30%. Darshawn McClellan is another depth forward who hasn’t had much success in scoring. 6-11 freshman Festus Ezeli is a decent rebounder and inside scorer who does well in relatively few minutes.
I mentioned it above, but its worth reiterating that these two teams are very similar in their areas of strength and weakness. The difference is that Kentucky has generally been stronger in most parts of the game, and I’d expect that to continue in this one.
Winner: Kentucky Margin: 6-10
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.