Matthew Fisher-Davis led four players in double-figures with 20 points as Vanderbilt overcame a 33-point outburst from Jamal Murray and knocked off No. 16 Kentucky, 74-62, in Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday afternoon.
The significance of this win for the Commodores cannot be overstated. They entered today sitting squarely on the bubble’s cut line, one of the first four out in some brackets and, in the latest CBT Bracktology, one of the last four in. This will go down as their best win of the season, and it comes just four days after Vandy won at Florida and three weeks after they picked off Texas A&M.
This win still may not be enough for Vanderbilt. With four sub-75 losses on the season — including losses to Mississippi State and Arkansas — and an 18-11 record, nothing is a given, even with five top 50 wins.
Which is why this was a notch on the belt that Vandy needed to get.
Here’s the other part of it: The Commodores look like they are finally hitting their stride. For the last three weeks, they’ve looked like the team that some (me) had pegged as a top 15 team in the preseason, and today was the perfect example. Vandy was able to pound the ball into the point and overwhelm the smaller Kentucky front line, and when the Wildcats tried to double, the myriad of shooters in Vandy’s perimeter attack rained down threes. Then throw in Wade Baldwin IV’s ability to break down a defense in transition and at the end of a clock, and what you have is a team with three potential NBA players that is finally playing like a team with three potential NBA players.
I have a theory on Vandy’s early struggles. Baldwin’s stock as a potential first rounder is based mostly on potential; he’s a talent and an athlete that’s still learning how to be a point guard. Luke Kornet couldn’t hit a shot for the first two months of the season while Jones has always been a guy whose physical tools outweighed his basketball skill. In other words, he’s not Jahlil Okafor on the block. Throw in the sophomore slump for Riley LaChance, and what you get is a team that underperformed early in the year.
But Baldwin is starting to get it. Kornet is at least making enough threes at this point where defenses have to be conscious of him. Jones is averaging 18.8 points and 10.0 boards in his last five games. And kids like Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson and have stepped up as LaChance has tried to find his rhythm.
I wouldn’t want to see Vandy in my region as a double-digit seed.
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As far as Kentucky is concerned, what we saw today was the result of Derek Willis being out of the lineup. As I broke down earlier this week, his absence in the lineup made Kentucky’s ball-screen actions that much easier to guard, which, in turn, limited just how effective Tyler Ulis can be. Without Willis on the floor, Kentucky consistently fields a lineup with just two players that have to be defended beyond 10 feet. In the last two games, as Willis has missed time with an ankle injury, Kentucky players not named Jamal Murray have shot 0-for-17 from three.