Vandy presents unique challenges for Kentucky

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 10, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Not even Kentucky — the No. 1-ranked team the last three weeks — can be great at everything. No team can, UK Coach John Calipari said Friday.

"You have to decide, as coaches, what does this team need, and be great at it," he said. "Let's focus on those things, and let's get real, real good at those things."

One of those things for Kentucky is defense. UK ranks No. 1 in the nation in field-goal defense (35.8 percent) and blocks (9.3 per game).

"This team should be a great defensive team," Calipari said. "We're long enough. We're athletic enough."

Kentucky figures to rely on its defense against Vanderbilt's multi-faceted attack Saturday night.

"(UK opponents) are going to come in and play well," Calipari said. "There's no question. What it comes down to is they have to play well for 40 minutes. Can they? Our job is to make it very difficult for them to play 40 minutes of great basketball."

When meeting with reporters Thursday, Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings cautioned against simply equating Kentucky defense with shot blocking.

"Shot blocking gets a ton of attention," he said. "But I don't think they get enough credit for how good they are on defense. (Anthony) Davis can go out of the game, and they're still outstanding defensively."

Vanderbilt (17-7 overall, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) is the league's third-most prolific offense (70.6 points per league game). The Commodores rank second in shooting accuracy (47 percent).

Kentucky ranks first in both categories (73.9 points and 49.1 percent shooting). But it was UK's defense that Stallings chose to compliment.

"I wish they were terrible on defense, and ranked No. 1," the Vandy coach said. "But they're great defensively."

Having limited Florida to a season-low six three-pointers on Tuesday, Kentucky now faces a Vandy team that leads the SEC in three-point quality (42.1 percent accuracy) and quantity (nine per league game).

"Two totally different teams," Calipari said of the challenges presented by Florida and Vandy. The UK coach suggested the key difference being the Commodores' senior center, Festus Ezeli. He can be a more reliably threatening low-post option to balance the three-point shooting.

After John Jenkins burned UK for a career-high 32 points in a Vandy victory in Nashville last season, Kentucky chose to tighten its perimeter defense and risk one-on-one coverage of Ezeli in the low post. Ezeli scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but UK held on for a two-point victory.

Calipari noted Ezeli's physical play.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee's wide-body freshman, could not physically contain Ezeli, the UK coach said. Well, Ezeli had five points (making two of eight shots), but did grab nine rebounds and block four shots against the Vols on Jan. 24.

"Now, you think about what I'm saying," Caliapri said. "And we didn't handle Stokes physically."

Calipari mused about Vandy slowing the tempo, then looking for a post-up opportunity, three-point shot or drive to the basket late in the shot clock.

Stallings perhaps hinted at such a strategy when he said, "We've got to have the will to execute and grind it and get it to where we need it."

Meanwhile, Kentucky's latest freshman point guard faces the annual challenge presented by Vandy's distinctive Memorial Gym: benches on the baselines. In the first half, the Cats will run offense at the far side of the court with the guards' back to the UK bench.

Coincidentally or not, no Kentucky point guard has had more assists than turnovers in Memorial Gym since Rajon Rondo (two assists, one turnover) in 2006.

"A great challenge for Marquis Teague, and I think he'll be fine," Calipari said.

Kentucky planned to give Teague one or two play options per possession.

"If I have to make my own calls, that will be fine," said Teague, who is coming off a career-high 10 assists against Florida. "... My confidence is getting back to where it used to be."

Teague, who nixed the idea of changing plays called by the coaches, dismissed the notion that he is Kentucky's weak link.

"I just want to keep playing like I'm playing (and) running the team," he said. "I don't listen to critics.

"It doesn't bother me. We don't have a weak link. But they have to say something."

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