Vanderbilt will host the defending national champion in their league action of the season tomorrow. Vandy was one of only two teams to defeat the Wildcats last season, however, as players and fans of both teams know, a lot has changed since that conference tournament matchup. Vanderbilt and Kentucky both come into this game with a completely different starting lineup, and the new stars of their respective teams will look to play with the same intensity that was seen in the three contest last season.
Kentucky will bring its usual collection of talented newcomers to Nashville. Star frosh Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein make up yet another stellar class put together by John Calipari. It is not only freshman newcomers that make a difference for this team though, as transfer guards Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays are also a big pieces for the Wildcats this season. And then of course the sophomore sharpshooter Kyle Wiltjer will provide a lot of minutes and quick scoring ability off the bench.
Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin will likely make up the starting backcourt. Harrow, a transfer from North Carolina State, came into this season with sky-high expectations. He has not been the dominant Calipari point guard we are so used to seeing, but he has significantly increased production in his last four games and does look much improved from his slow start to the season (which was staggered by illness and family matters). He has all the tools to become a great point guard, with fantastic quickness and athleticism. Kedren Johnson will need to keep the intensity on defense to make sure Harrow doesn’t run wild.
Archie Goodwin is an even more difficult defensive assignment. While the star freshman may not be a great shooter from the outside, his ability to attack the basket and finish through defenders is something special. Moreover, his pull up jump shot is enough to leave any defender weary of giving him any space. Goodwin has a confidence level that is through the roof, and is a major scoring threat at all times. Goodwin is also a very capable player at point guard, and is can find his teammates well at all times. However, he is known to get a little overconfident, and struggles taking care of the ball at times. Vanderbilt will need to take advantage of when this young star makes mistakes.
Julius Mays will make for basically the only reserve in the backcourt. He has spent time at both North Carolina State and Wright State in his long college career. Mays is a smart player, and his passing skills make him a valuable backup for the Wildcats. He has really struggled shooting the ball lately, but he makes a difference in so many areas that Calipari keeps him on the court. What would make for a real problem would be is Mays started hitting his shots, which would make for yet another threat in this Kentucky offense. Another possible guard who might see some time is walk-on Jarrod Polson, who made headlines with his big time play in the first game of the season against Maryland. Since then though, he has been a relative non-factor and it is unlikely he will play much at all if this game is close.
As always with Calipari teams, his guards are going to play hard throughout the game. Vandy will need a great performance from their backcourt to win this game, since getting an advantage in the paint is practically impossible. Kedren Johnson and Kyle Fuller will also need to extra care of the ball against a strong Kentucky press. I do think that the Commodores will perform decently defensively against the Wildcat backcourt. Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker are very skilled defenders and they should keep Kentucky guards from creating too much trouble.
Kentucky will likely start Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Nerlens Noel in the frontcourt. It will likely be the most physically and athletically intimidating front that Vanderbilt will see all season long. All three of these freshman have great length and leaping ability that, of course, will make for a lot of dunks and some alley-oops against a Commodore frontcourt that just doesn’t matchup. Poythress, who we all remember from the recruiting battle, is an athletic freak and that loves to throw down whenever possible. A strong player, he is also capable of stepping out for a mid-range jumpshot.
Willie Cauley-Stein has an outstanding number of tools in his arsenal. A wide receiver in high school, he is very quick for a seven footer. Cauley-Stein creates a lot of problems for opposing teams with his work in the Kentucky full-court press; his versatility and hustle make for quite the impressive combination. Nerlens Noel, another freshman with outstanding length, is somewhat limited offensively but makes up for it as a rebounder and shot blocker. He is not Anthony Davis, but who is? He looked soft against the very talented Maryland center Alex Len, but Vandy does not have that type of player to push around Noel.
As for reserves, Kyle Wiltjer is sure to get a lot of minutes. He is a lot different from the frontcourt players listed above, but his shooting abilities really add another dimension to the Kentucky offense. Also, Archie Goodwin will occasionally slide over the three spot as well. Much like Kevin Bright, he is a great rebounder for his size and his serviceable there as well.
As you could probably tell earlier, I worry that Vanderbilt will struggle with the Kentucky frontcourt. It is just not a good matchup for the Commodores, who lack any threatening post presence. Kevin Bright could fare decently against Goodwin at the three, but the four and five spots are just not on the same level. If there was ever a day to get James Siakam some minutes, it would be tomorrow, where Vandy could make use of his athleticism.
Vanderbilt guards would need to dominate in order to win this game, and the shots would need to fall. Kentucky is not quite on the level they have been in recent years, but this Commodores team would need a near perfect performance to overcome their mismatches. Hopefully Memorial Magic can really show up tomorrow night.