Kentucky basketball returns to action on Tuesday night in Nashville in what could be an interesting matchup.
I know, Vanderbilt is 0-6 in the SEC and 9-10 overall. The Commodores have lost seven straight, the latest of which was an 86-55 blowout at Oklahoma on Saturday. They’ve already lost once to Kentucky, falling 56-47 at Rupp Arena on Jan. 12. And UK has won six straight games, the last three over ranked teams.
The question is which Vanderbilt will show up at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday? The Vanderbilt that led No. 1-ranked Tennessee by six points with 1:32 to go, only to lose in overtime? Or the Vanderbilt that got waxed in Norman? It was as if those two games were played by two different teams.
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Playing at home against Tennessee, Bryce Drew’s club was upbeat and engaged. Even after falling behind 15-2 in the opening minutes, the Commodores rallied to take a 33-32 lead late in the first half. They trailed by a point, 38-37, at the half. They led 64-61 with 6:03 to go and 76-70 after Saben Lee made a pair of free throws with 92 seconds remaining.
Next possession came the controversial hook-and-hold flagrant foul on Vandy’s Clevon Brown. That sent Grant Williams to the line, where he made two free throws. (Williams would finish 23-of-23 at the line on the way to 43 points.) Ball out to Tennessee. Williams scored inside off the inbounds play and suddenly Vandy’s lead was down to two points.
Lee lost the ball out of bounds with 48.7 left. Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield scored with 38 seconds left and a couple of botched possessions later the game went to an extra five minutes. There, Williams scored 10 of Tennessee’s 12 points and Vanderbilt had lost a heartbreaker.
Maybe the hangover stretched all the way to Norman. Vandy led Oklahoma 16-14 with 12:04 left in the first half before Lon Kruger’s Sooners went on a 19-0 run. Ballgame. Vandy trailed 41-23 at the half. They trailed 71-43 with 7:05 left. They went scoreless over the game’s final 3:27.
“You always fear after an emotional game how your team is going to respond,” Drew said afterward. “For the first 10 to 12 minutes, I thought we responded well. After that, we couldn’t guard them one-on-one and couldn’t hang on to the ball enough to keep it close.”
Overall, Vandy committed 22 turnovers and shot just 37 percent from the field. Oklahoma shot 55.4 percent. The lone highlight: Lee matched his career-high of 24 points. He also committed six turnovers, however, as did freshman center Simisola Shittu.
Though winless in the league, Vandy has been much more competitive at home. The ‘Dores lost by 10 to Ole Miss, by three to South Carolina and in OT to Tennessee. The one exception was a 71-55 loss to Mississippi State. On the road, Drew’s team has lost by 19 at Georgia and by nine to UK. That doesn’t include Saturday’s 31-point road loss.
(By the way, Oklahoma completes its back-to-back games against the coaching Drew brothers when OU plays Baylor and Scott Drew on Monday in Waco.)
The guess here is that after Saturday’s embarrassment, Vanderbilt will give a better effort on Tuesday. By now, everyone knows the ‘Dores lost their best player, point guard Darius Garland, five games into the season. But a couple of other Vandy freshmen are key.
A top 25 prospect, the 6-foot-10 Shittu has been up-and-down all season. He had eight points and five rebounds in the first game against UK. Aaron Nesmith, a 6-6 wing, scored 24 points in the loss to Tennessee, then managed just nine points at Oklahoma. He scored 11 points in Lexington, then hit five three-pointers in a 23-point effort against South Carolina.
To stay close against Kentucky, Vandy is going to have to make some threes and play like it did against Tennessee.