The Vanderbilt Commodores (16-3, 9-7) travel to Rupp Arena Wednesday night (6 pm CT; SECN) for a big rematch with the Kentucky Wildcats (20-9, 11-5). This is potentially a big game for both teams in terms of SEC Tournament seeding purposes and definitely, a massive game for Vanderbilt’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Heading into last week, Vandy had begun to make some buzz around the country landing “in consideration” and “on the bubble” in some respected NCAA Tournament field projections. They had won five straight contests before dropping a big one to LSU on the road in a game that gives their postseason chances a big blow. Despite that, not all hope is lost but they now head on the road against a resurging ranked Kentucky team who is notorious for being a tough opponent on their home floor. Rupp Arena is a daunting place to some but it is an opportunity for a team who wants to prove they deserve a spot in the final 68 to show their worth. By no means will this game be easy nor will the Commodores be favored, but I have three keys that I believe can help get the Commodores in the win column over Kentucky for the first time in seven years. This has been the year of the streaks being snapped for Coach Jerry Stackhouse’s team and there is no better time to add another to the list.
Keep Liam Robbins Out of Foul Trouble
In my preview for these two teams’ first matchup, my most important key was for the Commodores to slow down Oscar Tshiebwe and I still believe that could be a pivotal part in Vanderbilt’s success in this game, but the Commodores were without their best big man Liam Robbins and since his return, Robbins has become a top 5 big man in the country. The biggest difference I believe from that first matchup will be that Robbins has turned into a player down the stretch who is capable of matching, if not outdoing the likes of the Oscar Tshiebwe of the world. Robbins has his season averages up to 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game. These are all very impressive numbers that will put him in contention for 1st team All-SEC. What is even more impressive is since his return from injury a month ago he is averaging 20.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. Those numbers are not just all-conference team worthy but SEC player of the year worthy! Now obviously he is not going to win SEC player of the year because he has not sustained those numbers for the full season, but that is the type of player Vanderbilt is getting on a nightly basis when they take the floor. He is every bit as good as Tshiebwe right now, but the only thing that can slow him down is when he gets into foul trouble. He is a big guy who goes for blocked shots often but it can lead him to pick up fouls at a higher clip. If Robbins were to get in foul trouble and must be on the bench for a chunk of this game, it could be devastating to Vandy. He is the only threat they have who can help neutralize the heralded Kentucky big man so they will need him on the floor as much as possible.
Keeping Knocking Down 3’s
A big reason for Vanderbilt’s success down the stretch has been their ability to take and make the open threes at a higher clip than they have for the full season. Guys like Myles Stute and Trey Thomas are known for their ability to make shots from outside and when they are doing so it allows for much more spacing on the floor for Robbins. Over Vanderbilt’s last seven games, they have made at least 10 threes in five of those games. They will need to continue that trend against a team who is middle of the pack in opposing team three-pointers allowed. The best time to get open looks is off of offensive rebounds and Kentucky does a good job limiting opponents to just 6.8 offensive rebounds per game so Vanderbilt will need to do a good job capitalizing on their initial looks and not relying on multiple chances on the offensive end. Another guy who has stepped up to help take the load off of other guys is freshman Colin Smith. He saw a season-high 30 minutes in the win against Florida and is shooting a respectable 36% from three on the season. His improved play just adds to the depth of offensive weapons this team has that can get hot game-to-game.
Neutralize Kentucky’s Home Court Advantage
It is no secret that Vanderbilt has had their struggles with Kentucky, in fact, they have not won in Rupp Arena since the 2007 season. A large part of that is how well the Wildcats have played at home in their history. Rupp is a loud, hostile environment that can speed opponents up and provide a lot of pressure on the younger and even older players. Kentucky thrives at home this season averaging 10 more points per game and giving up 9 fewer points per game at home. Vanderbilt would benefit tremendously if they could get off to a hot start and take the crowd out of the game early. This would allow them to take a deep breath and play their game and control the pace. Getting down early in Rupp is not a recipe for success for opponents. This is not an ideal place or time for a must-win game for Vanderbilt, but they have still set themselves up for a chance to keep taking care of business and let the chips fall where they may. If a month ago from today you were told Vanderbilt would need to go to Kentucky and pull off an upset and still have hope for an NCAA Tournament shot you would have gladly taken that opportunity. It can still be done, but it won’t be without hardship.
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