Dethroning Kentucky is hard enough. Knocking off the Wildcats at home is nearly impossible.
Vanderbilt’s five seniors hope to crack the Rupp Arena riddle for the first time in their careers. The cavernous palace is the only Southeastern Conference arena where the group never has won.
The task is magnified as Kentucky bolsters the nation’s No. 1 ranking and a 19-game winning streak into Saturday’s matchup (11 a.m., CBS). And, oh yeah, the Wildcats (27-1, 13-0 SEC) ride a 50-game home winning streak — the longest in the nation. Third-year coach John Calipari is 47-0 at Rupp.
“It is a very intimidating place to begin with,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who is 2-10 in Lexington, said. “Twenty-four thousand people. [Memorial Gymnasium] is an intimidating place and there is 14,000. So you imagine another 10,000 people in one building all wearing blue. And then that doesn’t even begin to talk about the players and how good they are. Everything is difficult about it. What is so difficult? Everything. Offense. Defense. Rebounding.
“Everything is difficult about playing there but it begins with the quality of their team and how well their team plays.”
The Commodores (20-8, 9-4) hve won three straight, a streak which began after a 69-63 home loss to the Wildcats just two weeks ago.
The SEC’s leading scorer John Jenkins (20.1 ppg) and the third-leading scorer Jeffery Taylor (17.3 ppg) have both had 28-points games since. But Taylor was held to season-low four points on Wednesday in a battle against the league’s last-place team, South Carolina. The senior was 1-of-8 from the field and 0-of-5 from 3-point range — this two games removed from a 5-of-6 performance.
“[South Carolina’s man] defense is a little tricky to figure out but, nah, I was missing shots,” Taylor said. “I just didn’t play like my normal self.”
Stallings called it “easily his worst game of the year and he knows why and I know why. I promise that won’t happen again.”
In order to upend Kentucky, which rallied in the second half on the road at Mississippi State on Tuesday, all of Vanderbilt’s offensive weapons will need to be in tune against the nation’s top field-goal percentage defense (36.2).
Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli took a positive step against South Carolina. The 6-foot-11 center bounced back after a one-point game against Georgia and scored 14 points and blocked five shots.
He looked flustered the last time out against Kentucky, turning the ball over three times in the first half. He finished with 13 points but missed seven of 12 shots and seemed bothered by Kentucky big man Anthony Davis (13.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and the Wildcats’ guards who swarmed to him to try to strip the ball.
Post play should be a focal point of the rematch. Kentucky outscored Vanderbilt 44-22 in the paint. Davis, the nation’s leading shot blocker with 131, had seven blocks to go along with 15 points. Terrence Jones crashed the boards for nine rebounds and scored all 14 points in the first half.
“The first game I think I was a little too pumped up, a little too hyped,” Ezeli said. “The first half I struggled a little bit because I was a little too hyper. I was thinking about it too much. This game I am going to work on staying more calm.”
Vanderbilt can also take solace in the fact it has had two straight close calls with Kentucky.
The Commodores lost by two at Rupp last year and two weeks ago they led with just more than three minutes left. But a four-minute scoring drought to end the game cost them the upset.
“There were so many ways we could have won the game,” Stallings said. “There were so many opportunities that we had to make a difference in the outcome of that game. You have to give them credit because they prevented us from doing so. We know we can play with them now.
"Playing with them on their court is a more difficult proposition than playing with them on our court of course.”