In this second meeting with the Kentucky Wildcats, Vanderbilt faces a team which suddenly has exponentially greater reason to believe in its capacities and talents.
The good news for Vanderbilt: The Dores have more reason to trust themselves as well.
The SEC exceeded expectations in the Big 12-SEC Challenge on Saturday, taking on one of the strongest conferences in college hoops -- in this or any other year -- and subduing it. The SEC won the Challenge for the first time in the history of the series.
One can make the case that Kentucky and Vanderbilt are the two chief reasons this happened. More than that, there shouldn't be any debate about the contention. UK and VU made the SEC's day.
Alabama's win over Oklahoma was no small achievement, but Oklahoma has been poor on the road this season, and Alabama has been solid at home. Arkansas was supposed to beat Oklahoma State. Tennessee wasn't supposed to drill Iowa State by more than 20 points, but the Vols were supposed to win that game. Florida was certainly expected to handle Baylor at home.
Kentucky's and Vanderbilt's respective wins were anything but likely.
Kentucky has pulled itself out of deep, dark ditches in previous seasons under John Calipari, and Vanderbilt has won big home games before -- even in the midst of seasons which were less than supremely productive -- but these were still struggling teams going up against formidable Big 12 opponents.
West Virginia had been ranked No. 2 earlier this season, and while the Mountaineers had blown double-digit leads in multiple losses -- including a home-court stumble against Kansas -- the reality of having squandered leads should have made WVU, if anything, MORE intent on preventing such a slip-up from occurring again. When the Mountaineers raced to a 54-37 lead over the Wildcats in the second half, was there a single soul watching in Lexington who thought victory was realistic for Big Blue?
As for Vanderbilt, the Commodores didn't even prevent TCU from shooting the ball well from the field. The Horned Frogs are likely to go to the NCAA Tournament, and they shot over 55 percent from the floor in a road environment. On most days, that spells doom for an opponent, especially one that entered Saturday several games under .500.
This wasn't "most days," either in Morgantown or Memorial Gym.
In West Virginia, Kentucky gained the super-duper-star performance it needed from Kevin Knox. It was obvious and widely agreed upon that Kentucky's decline before this weekend was the product of lacking a takeover artist, someone who could put on his cape, shut up everyone else, and dominate a ballgame. Kevin Knox finally did that, channeling the spirit of Malik Monk from the 2016-2017 season in memorable Kentucky wins over North Carolina (regular season, not the NCAA Tournament) and Florida. Knox kept wiggling free from West Virginia's zone, but he also attacked the offensive glass and played sound, credible defense which forced West Virginia to shoot a lot of long, contested twos.
Instructively, Knox's Kentucky supporting cast didn't turn into a bunch of bystanders in the midst of this display. It can sometimes be the case in basketball that when one player takes over, the other players watch and forget to do the little things to make sure the whole team continues to defend, rebound and share the ball. That did not happen with Kentucky. Quade Green, Nick Richards, and P.J. Washington were particularly instrumental in making sure Knox had adequate help.
Nobody expected this to happen in Morgantown, but Kentucky has at least offered a blueprint for how the Wildcats can make a run to the Final Four. No one could see a path before this weekend, but now the map has been found, having previously been buried in sand and locked in a box. Kevin Knox used his shovel and found the key. Kentucky now sees a vista rich with possibility again,
So does Vanderbilt.
VU fans will almost certainly wonder if Riley LaChance can remain the force he was on Saturday -- LaChance's history (which needs no lengthy explanation) is and has always been marked by peaks and valleys, never playing at the same level for multiple weeks at a time. Vanderbilt needs the good version of LaChance -- in evidence this past week -- to stick around throughout February, but it's hard to count on that scenario. Nevertheless, LaChance showed yet again versus TCU that when he sparkles, VU thrives. Bryce Drew is hoping that LaChance has turned a corner; if he has, this team can do great things.
The other two A-plus characteristics of the win over TCU were Vanderbilt's ability to defend without fouling and protect the ball. One can live many decades and not see a basketball game in which a team doesn't attempt a single foul shot. If one was to identify a team which would pull off that feat, the school name would start with V... but it would be Virginia, the defensive monster which will very likely be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Vanderbilt?!?!? That was a remarkable exhibit of defensive discipline against TCU, and if the Horned Frogs had made merely five or six foul shots, who knows if the outcome would have been different? It might have.
Vanderbilt needed to be excellent, not merely good, on multiple fronts. Not allowing a foul shot and committing only seven turnovers while shooting over 52 percent from the field checked the boxes VU needed to pull off that upset. Now, a more confident Drew Crew of Commodores can go to Rupp Arena and let it fly, having nothing to lose.
Let's not overcomplicate the game plan for Dores-Cats. Kentucky now has The One Who Knox. Kevin IS -- with a tip of the cap to Walter White on Breaking Bad -- the danger.
West Virginia could tell you all about this next truth: In college basketball, young players caught up in the emotions of competition often forget to close down hot shooters. They intellectually know they need to get on the shooting hand of a hot shooter, but the flow of action and the natural human tendency to watch the ball instead of staying with one's man (or zone, within a matchup zone containing man-to-man principles) lead the defensive player to drift ever so slightly from the perimeter shooter.
Another example: The opposing team's point guard beats his man and dribbles into the lane, hurtling toward the basket. The perimeter defender is so conscious of seeing his teammate get toasted on the dribble drive that he moves toward the paint to try to provide help defense before it is too late. The point guard -- who wanted this all along -- gleefully makes the kickout pass to the shooter, who stayed behind the three-point line all along on the wing or in the corner. Splash!
Teams leading by three points with 10 seconds left in college basketball games fall victim to that last tendency. Everything about the moment tells them to stay with the three-point shooter, but the overpowering instinct to deny a bucket on a drive to the rim kicks in and leads the wing defenders to leave shooters free.
Drew and his coaching staff have to drill it through every VU perimeter or wing defender: DON'T. LEAVE. KNOX. PERIOD.
Vanderbilt has to make non-Knox players beat the Dores. It is the height of folly to think Knox will cool down -- he might do so, but the game plan has to be devoted to stopping him first, and to making someone else hit shots. If Wenyen Gabriel or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander beat Vanderbilt, so be it.
Allowing The One Who Knox to beat VU would be a much more bitter -- and depressing -- pill to swallow.
After seeing VU do so many things well against TCU in a surprising Big 12-SEC Challenge, let's see if the Dores can pull yet another surprise in the (unofficially named) Rupp Arena Challenge in Lexington.
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