Calipari, No. 9 Kentucky wary of upstart Vanderbilt
LEXINGTON, Ky. — No. 9 Kentucky can move one step closer to its 48th Southeastern Conference championship with a victory Tuesday night over Vanderbilt.
Kentucky (24-5, 14-2) meets Vanderbilt (16-13, 9-7) at Rupp Arena in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Just don’t expect a cakewalk, according to Wildcats coach John Calipari.
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“Very dangerous,” Calipari said. “I watched tape Saturday after the game and I watched it (Sunday) and I watched it today. They’re playing their best basketball.”
Vanderbilt was 9-11 overall, 3-5 in the SEC before scoring an upset win over Iowa State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 28. The Commodores have now won seven of nine games heading into Tuesday’s battle, including victories over Arkansas and South Carolina.
“They’re making shots, they’re cutting hard,” Calipari said. “They played us all zone last time, and now they’re not playing zone at all. They struggled defensively and they’re not now. I tell you, they’re playing together and they’ve figured it out.”
Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 87-81 on Jan. 10 in Nashville, Tenn., in what was a four-game losing streak for the Commodores.
“It’s like every team we play,” Calipari said. “Just all the sudden they’re playing well and then they’re playing us.”
Kentucky enters the game off a 76-66 win over No. 13 Florida on Saturday that put the Wildcats in control of the SEC race. Vandy routed Mississippi State 77-48 in Nashville.
“I think they’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Calipari said. “They’ve got to probably win a couple games, but I would say they’re an NCAA Tournament team. They will have the No. 1 schedule in the country at the end of the regular season.”
Vanderbilt’s strength of schedule on the RPI index is currently No. 3. Kentucky sits at No. 15.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “To be in this situation considering where we were a few weeks ago is a great compliment to the guys, their hard work and how they’re coming together. Now, we’re playing for something. There’s a lot at stake this week.”
Kentucky is led in scoring by freshman guard Malik Monk with an SEC-best 21.7 points per game. On Saturday, Monk erupted for 30 of his 33 points in the second half to spur the Wildcats’ win.
Kentucky’s best play of late might be coming from freshman forward Bam Adebayo. In two wins last week, he scored 40 points and recorded 30 rebounds. His back-to-back 15-rebound games were the first for a Wildcats player since 1994. For the season, Adebayo averages 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds.
Freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox averages 15.5 points and a team-best 5.3 assists, but he missed Saturday’s game with a bruised knee. Calipari said Monday he was uncertain if Fox would play Tuesday.
One thing is certain. Because it’s Senior Night, Calipari will start his three seniors — Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder.
Vanderbilt is led in scoring by junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis at 15.0 points per game. Next comes senior forward Like Kornet at 13.2 points, junior forward Jeff Roberson at 11.1 and junior guard Riley LaChance at 10.1. Roberson is coming off a career-best 23 points in the win over Mississippi State.
“Our biggest focus is to keep improving, keep playing good basketball and hopefully to be playing our best basketball this week and next week,” Drew said. “It’s nice that we’ve gotten some wins so people are talking about us, but we know we have to keep winning to stay in those conversations.”