Irony of ironies: sky-scraping Kentucky has gotten good results lately by going small.
A combination of three perimeter players and two "bigs" has helped Kentucky in recent games: the double-overtime victory at Texas A&M last weekend, then last week's victories over Missouri and Alabama. A three-man combination on the perimeter featuring Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis and/or Dominique Hawkins provides:
■ Extra perimeter shooting to loosen up the opposition's ever-present zone defense.
■ Better defense on the opposition's perimeter scorer (Stefan Moody of Ole Miss, Danuel House of A&M).
■ Additional quickness to strengthen pressure defense.
UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged the effectiveness of a lineup featuring three perimeter players and two big men.
"It gives you that one more ball handler," he said on the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference Monday. "One more free-throw shooter."
Although Booker and Ulis have made headlines with their perimeter shooting, Calipari credited the freshmen guards with making a big difference defensively.
"We can all talk shooting," he said. "But the reason we're winning is because when you put (Booker) in and Tyler, that energy defensively is what really takes us to another level."
As Derek Willis noted, it's not like Kentucky suffers with a lineup of three big men and two perimeter players.
"We may have a guy who may not be as quick as their three-man," Willis said. "And we can throw Dom and twins in. ... It's fine either way."
Freshman Trey Lyles is the fulcrum. If UK wants to go big, he can play small forward. If UK wants to go (relatively) small, he can play power forward.
"I'm comfortable at both positions," he said.
Lyles acknowledged that he's more accustomed to guarding one of the opponent's big men than dealing with a quicker player on the perimeter.
"Lot more running around you have to do," he said of defending a perimeter player. "A four-man is stand-still, one position."
As a high school player, Lyles defended the opposition's inside threat. "It's pretty easy to guard them," he said.
Assistant coach John Robic, who substituted for Calipari at Monday's news conference, downplayed any difference it makes if Lyles or a smaller player defends against an opponent's three-man.
"I don't think there's a big difference," he said. "... Trey Lyles can guard the perimeter. It's harder for him because he's 6-10."
The important thing is having options to deal with whatever arises in a particular game, Calipari said.
"What I say to them is I don't need all 10 of you to play well," the UK coach said. "I need five of you, and then I'll ride those five."
Frosh of Week
The SEC named Devin Booker its Freshman of the Week for a second straight week, and third time in the last five weeks. He has made 20 of 28 three-point shots in the last seven games.
"He's not forcing shots ...," Robic said. "I can't think of the last bad shot he's taken."
Calipari noted how he worked with Booker on being better prepared to shoot before the ball arrived.
Vanderbilt comes to Rupp Arena riding a three-game losing streak, which caused Coach Kevin Stallings to note "this valley" the Commodores find themselves in.
After a loss at Mississippi State last weekend, Stallings said he had to get his team to play with more confidence.
"When you lose a couple, now all of a sudden you can start wondering," he said on the teleconference. "I'm not saying that's where we're at. But that could be where we're at."
Going against Kentucky's defense does not suggest Vandy will get a confidence boost.
"Their defense is perhaps as good as I've ever seen," Stallings said before adding a moment later, "If you allow your mojo to be defined by what happens in one game, particularly at Kentucky, then I think you're missing the boat a little bit."
Frosh vs. Frosh
Vandy is expected to start three freshmen. All three are guards. Vandy quotes numbers maven Ken Pomeroy as saying the Commodores are the fourth-youngest among 351 Division I teams in terms of experience.
Calipari and Stallings downplayed any significance in one (Calipari) usually working with freshmen one season while the other (Stallings) typically coaches players for four seasons.
"The reality is we all, in practice, we're forcing these kids to grow up fast," Calipari said.
Said Stallings: "I don't know if I see a difference in the urgency I coach them with. I'm trying to coach them to have urgency."
Vandy's Riley LaChance is the SEC's leading freshman scorer (13.3 ppg), second in three-pointers per game (2.1) and third in three-point accuracy (40.2 percent). ... Dave Neal, Darrin Horn and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung will call the game for the SEC Network.