UK Men's Basketball

For Vandy guard, UK is always a big game

Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson rejoiced after the Commodores' 71-64 victory over Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game last season.
Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson rejoiced after the Commodores' 71-64 victory over Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game last season. Associated Press

With Vanderbilt basketball in the early stages of a near-complete renovation, Kedren Johnson finds himself one of the few Commodores who can claim a history involving Kentucky.

For instance, during a recruiting visit two years ago, Johnson attended Vandy's home game against Kentucky.

"Probably the best environment I've seen in Memorial (Gym) since I've been here, period," he said Tuesday. "Since I've been around Vandy, period."

Vandy won that game 81-77, thanks in large part to John Jenkins' 32 points.

Fast forward to the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament. Now near the end of his freshman season, Johnson recalled seeing a lot of UK fans as the Vandy team rode a bus to the New Orleans Arena to play Kentucky for the championship.

"People were throwing their thumbs down, saying 'Oh, you all suck,'" Johnson said with a good-natured chuckle. His reaction? "Oh, I loved it," he said. "There's not a better feeling in the world than to prove people wrong."

Of course, Johnson's driving layup and three-point play inside the final two minutes broke a 62-62 tie and helped Vandy beat UK 71-64.

"I was just trying to be aggressive," he said of what was surely the biggest of his 37 baskets last season. "Trying to make a play and push us over the top."

He doesn't savor the moment often. "I'd made that move over my career probably a million times," he said.

But Johnson still clearly remembers one factor that helped make him a hero.

"I saw the lane (and) nobody was there," he said. "I knew Anthony Davis wasn't in the paint."

When Kentucky plays at Vandy on Thursday in the teams' Southeastern Conference opener, Johnson expects "a whole bunch of blue" in Memorial Gym. The game is the first sellout this season for Vandy, which is averaging 9,554 in home attendance (capacity 14,316). That's on pace for Vandy's smallest average home attendance since 2002-03 (9,570).

Surely, the lack of familiar faces and a 6-6 record in non-conference affect attendance.

"For us, it's like a new season," Johnson said of the meaning of Thursday's game. "We want to start off the SEC the right way.

"Plus, it's Kentucky."

As Coach John Calipari likes to note, Kentucky as visiting team brings a heightened sense of anticipation.

UK-Vandy gave lucky fans three memorable games last season. The Cats won the two regular-season meetings. Overall, after 120 minutes, UK outscored Vandy by eight points in competition that featured seven of the first 31 picks in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Both teams bare little resemblance to their predecessors of 2011-12. None of Kentucky's players started a game for the Cats last season. Two Vandy players had previous starting experience prior to this season: Ray Odom (two games) and Kyle Fuller (one).

Of the 208 points Vandy scored against UK last season, only 10 came from players on this year's team: Six by Johnson in the SEC Tournament title game and four by Dai-Jon Parker in Rupp Arena.

Although both teams have revamped rosters, Johnson noted a telling difference.

"We had three guys go to the NBA," he said of Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli and Jenkins. "So that's always a big loss, especially for a school like Vanderbilt. We're not bringing in McDonald's All-Americans every year."

That would be Kentucky, which as fans well know produced 15 first-round picks in the last three NBA drafts.

"I wouldn't necessarily say Kentucky is rebuilding," Johnson said. "I'd give that to us a little more."

Johnson, who leads Vandy in scoring (16.6 ppg), has experience in being a common thread in a re-tooled team. He said he did the same thing as a high school sophomore in Lewisburg, Tenn. (which is about 56 miles south of Nashville). That proximity led him to sign with Vandy over Louisville, Florida, Memphis and Alabama.

Kevin Stallings, whose 267 victories leave him 12 shy of becoming Vanderbilt's winningest coach, acknowledged the challenge of coaching a roster that includes six sophomores, five freshmen and no seniors.

"I don't know I've handled it as well as I hoped I would," he said.

Stallings noted inconsistent play, especially on offense.

"Defensively, we've been fairly consistent, which has been a very nice surprise," he said. " ... Scoring hasn't been that big a problem the last few years. That's been a little hard to take, at times."

The Commodores have improved as the season unfolded, Stallings and Johnson said.

"We've gotten a lot better," Johnson said. "Just in terms of composure during runs from the other teams. Not so much panicking when we get down."