UK Men's Basketball

Can Vandy clinch NCAA bid by beating UK? Ask Joe DeNardo

Kentucky head coach John Calipari said Vanderbilt, UK’s opponent on Tuesday night, is not to be taken lightly. He called Vandy a “very dangerous” opponent. “They’re playing their best basketball.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari said Vanderbilt, UK’s opponent on Tuesday night, is not to be taken lightly. He called Vandy a “very dangerous” opponent. “They’re playing their best basketball.”

Bracketology — the “science” of trying to anticipate each seeding-and-bracketing decision made by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee — consumes college basketball fans this time of year.

But apparently not Vanderbilt, which comes into Tuesday’s game at Kentucky on the metaphorical bubble, the fragile border between getting in or out of the NCAA Tournament.

As if to prove Monday that Vanderbilt is not obsessing about an NCAA bid, guard Nolan Cressler said, “It’s in our heads, but we’re not playing each game and coming back to the locker room, like, ‘Where does Joe DeNardo have us in the standings?’”

Joe DeNardo? Surely Cressler meant Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s resident and incessant bracketologist. Lunardi has Vandy as the first of his first four out. In other words, No. 69 in the 68-team field.

Vandy comes to Lexington having won four straight. Included was a 71-62 victory over then-No. 21 South Carolina. After which guard Riley LaChance said, “We’re clawing our way back into the conversation.”

Vandy has two chances this week to impress the Selection Committee. The Commodores play No. 12 Florida at home Saturday.

Of a final week bursting with opportunity, Cressler said, “Oh, it’s huge. It’s kind of the position we wanted to be in a couple weeks ago. This is everything we asked for.”

For what it’s worth, DeNardo, er, Lunardi saw the NCAA stakes in Rupp Arena on Tuesday as “Kentucky would fall back with a loss. For Vandy, it would be their biggest win in years!!”

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about seniors Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins in advance of Tuesday's Senior Night game against Vanderbilt.

House money revisited

For several weeks, Kentucky Coach John Calipari had lamented how UK opponents not in the NCAA Tournament conversation could play free and easy. They were playing with “house money,” he said.

Although Vandy has plenty to lose, that wouldn’t necessarily inhibit the Commodores, Calipari said. Vandy was a “very dangerous” opponent, he said. “They’re playing their best basketball.”

But Calipari did not rule out the Commodores playing free and easy. “If they do, you’ll know,” he said.

Vandy’s first-year coach, Bryce Drew, tried to downplay the NCAA bid implications.

“Our biggest focus is just keep improving,” he said. “Keep playing good basketball. It’s nice we’ve gotten some wins. … We know we have to keep winning to stay in those conversations.”

Vandy’s trump card for getting an NCAA bid might be its strength of schedule, which has been rated among the strongest in the country.

After a 29-point victory over Mississippi State on Saturday, Drew welcomed the absence of house money.

“This is a much better place to be when you’re playing for something rather than not playing with postseason aspirations,” he said.

Kentucky senior Dominique Hawkins talks about his four years as a Wildcat leading up to Tuesday's Senior Night game against Vanderbilt.

Rooting against UK?

Derek Willis said that Calipari regularly reminds the players that there are people who root against Kentucky.

“He always tells the story about just how people will go back home, like, when we won a game,” Willis said. “They’ll kick the cat … because they’re so mad.

“It’s just funny stuff. It’s hilarious. People don’t want to see you do good. I feel like we are the mountaintop of college basketball. We have a great legacy here, and a great culture. And people don’t like stuff like that.”

Senior Mychal Mulder talks about his time at Kentucky in advance of Tuesday's Senior Night game against Vanderbilt.

Frazzled in February

Calipari acknowledged how the long season can adversely affect a coach’s mental health. He tweeted about anxiety causing him to awaken at 3 a.m. recently.

“Last couple days, my mind’s been racing … ,” he said. “K.P. (associate coach Kenny Payne) laughed and said he woke up in the middle of the night yelling at Bam (Adebayo). I said, all of us are losing our minds, right now.”

Calipari linked his activities outside of basketball to an effort to maintain good mental health.

“I know I do other things,” he said. “I have to. Because I’ll wake up at three in the morning if I’m not. My mind has to be consumed with other stuff. Not just basketball.

“Even when I’m sleeping, that stuff happens. ‘Ahh, why didn’t he rebound?’ What? Where am I?”

Kentucky senior Derek Willis talks about his four years as a Wildcat in advance of Senior Night on Tuesday against Vanderbilt.

Family tradition

Vandy forward Jeff Roberson scored a career-high 23 points in the 77-48 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday. He made five three-pointers in less than six minutes.

Incidentally, seven family members came from Houston to the game in order to celebrate the 17th birthday of his younger brother, Jeremy.

When family members came for Jeremy’s 16th birthday last season, they saw Vandy upset then-No. 16 Kentucky.

“Once we came and they beat Kentucky, we decided to make this trip a tradition,” mother Pamela Roberson told The Tennessean.

5,468 points

If the game were to be decided by a shooting contest for coaches, it might favor Vandy.

As college players, the Commodores’ coaches scored a cumulative 5,468 points. Drew led the way with 2,142 points for Valparaiso. Then there’s Casey Shaw’s 1,562 points for Toledo, Roger Powell’s 1,178 points for Illinois and Jake Diebler’s 586 points for Vandy.

Etc.

▪ Calipari said he did not know if point guard De’Aaron Fox would play against Vandy. Fox missed the game against Florida because of a bruised knee. Said Drew: “Obviously, if he plays, they’re a better team. We’re preparing both ways.”

▪ Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung will call the game for ESPN.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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