With a 56-47 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team improved its record to 12-3, 2-1 in the SEC. It wasn’t the most appealing of games, the Wildcats found themselves down 9-2 early repeating the disturbing trend of slow starts and a frustrating inability to defend the three point line (all 9 of Vandy’s first points were from three point range). Despite a lead that was as much as 12 points, the Dores lead the Cats by 2 at halftime with the Cats trimming the lead down to 30-28 before intermission.
Kentucky opened the second half on a 7-0 which was enough to put the Cats in front for good, their largest second half lead being as much as 11. The difference was Kentucky’s defense. After giving up 16 points in the first 5 minutes of the game, the Wildcats held Vanderbilt to 31 over the next 35 including 17 total second half points. The Commodores shot 17-47 from the floor (36.2%) including 7-25 from 3PT range (28%). And while the visitors’ zone did slow down the Wildcats offense, UK forced Vandy to slow its offense down to over 21 seconds per possession – the result of several second half shot clock violations.
The game wasn’t pretty and Vanderbilt isn’t a great team, or ever good (9-6 overall, 0-3 in the SEC). But the Cats won a game they couldn’t afford to lose. This was a game that could prove to be valuable later down the line. Kentucky didn’t particularly play well and the pace of the game gave the 22,504 in attendance visions of Big10 basketball, but the Cats found a way to win. Head coach John Calipari was visibly frustrated at another slow start, but he said after the game that he was encouraged by the way the Cats fought back. If history is any indicator, this will be the type of game the Cats will face in the postseason.
Freshman Asthon Hagans appears to be writing his name on the list of previous star point guards to play under Coach Cal. While he may not been has heralded as some of the others, his play is the reason this current team has won 4 out its last 5. Against Vandy, he had 15 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. And while he also had 5 of UK’s 15 turnovers, it’s clear that has Hagans goes, so do the Cats. Keldon Johnson added 15 points of his own and Immanuel Quickley scored 12, shooting 3-7 from 3PT range.
While it’s certainly frustrating that Kentucky didn’t cover the spread or even look dominant for large stretches, there are still highlights beyond Hagans’ play for UK to build on. Tyler Herro played a team high 36 minutes and only scored 4 points on 3 FG attempts (0-2 from 3PT). That shows that Herro is much more than a shooter and he’s learning how to play team defense and initiate offense without scoring and he grabbed 6 rebounds. Reid Travis had a game high 12 rebounds and PJ Washington grabbed 8 as the Wildcats outrebounded the Commodores 38-21. Rebounding was an area the Cats had to dominate and they did.
Coach Calipari and his team will take the show on the road and head to Athens on Tuesday to take on Tom Crean and his Georgia Bulldogs. After that, the schedule only gets tougher. These Cats have shown flashes of talent, but it’s going to take a lot more consistency to net the programs fifty-leventh SEC title (*approximately) and get them to Final Four for the 18th time. Coach Cal was optimistic this team could deliver on the preseason hype, but fighting to fend off a mediocre Vanderbilt team won’t have anyone in the Big Blue Nation sleeping easy. A win is a win, but at some point the Cats are going to have to put it all together to give the BBN a reason to believe another deep Calipari run is on the table.