Kentucky basketball: Wildcats must stop Vandy for confidence to remain high

The Kentucky basketball team has been in Nashville since Monday preparing for its two-game swing across the Volunteer state and the mission is clear – take care of Vanderbilt and upend Tennesse and people will start to take notice.

Kentucky (6-13, 5-7) has been on the cusp of figuring things out and despite nearly giving the game away with Auburn on Saturday it was Davion Mintz delivering the fatal shot and boosting this team’s confidence in the 82-81 win.

While they are not a championship team their mentality seems headed in the right direction as it enters the final five regular-season games. All are winnable and all are losable. Let’s hope it’s the former or at least maybe 3 wins.

Kentucky basketball is relying on Davion Mintz of late

So tonight it’s a 7 pm tip at Vanderbilt (6-10 2-8), a team that sits at the bottom of the standings in both football and basketball but always matches up with Kentucky in ugly games. The Commodores are fresh off stunning Mississippi State by 21 points over the weekend.

The last time these two met in Rupp Arena it was Kentucky relying on Mintz again late to earn a 77-74 win. We should not expect anything different this go around.

Kentucky also needs to snap a four-game losing streak away from Lexington having lost to Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, and Missouri.

Just like Saturday, the Wildcats need production from everyone. Mintz is the go-to guy now for Kentucky and teams are seeing that. Putting themselves into that position again is too dicey for this team.

Mintz passed up an open look on the prior possession and drew the ire of coach John Calipari who was screaming at him to shoot. He addressed that to the media in previewing the Vandy game.

“Coach Cal has an extreme amount of confidence in me and sometimes, his confidence is so high that even when I don’t feel that I’m open, he feels it. Looking back at the play, I was definitely open but sometimes in the game, I need to have my feet set, stay ready to go ahead, and knock it down and I almost put us in a position to lose that game towards the end. I knew when the ball was coming back to me again because I knew the play was for me and I know I can step into it and knock it down. Do what I do.”

Simply put Kentucky needs to make shots, rebound well, not turn it over and the key to the game slow down Scottie Pippen Jr. You won’t’ stop him but you have to make him work for everything.

He knifed up the Wildcat defense last time and for the season is averaging 20.3 points per game and hands out 5.4 assists. He makes the Vandy offense go. Who Kentucky puts on him defensively maybe by a committee to find the solution.

Assistant Coach Bruiser Flint took questions in media day previewing the game and what makes Pippen dangerous.

“He’s a very similar talent, a very similar player to (Sharife) Cooper. I think he’s a little bit more of a scorer. Where I think Cooper is more of a passer. He’s a better finisher around the rim. He shoots it better. But I think he likes to pass. I think he likes to get in the lane. I think he likes to pass the ball and get his guys involved.

Another hot player that was non-relevant the first game is senior guard Maxwell Evens who dropped in 20 points against Mississippi State and has rung up double figures in four of the past six games. Against Kentucky the first time his point total was ZERO.

Jordan Wright scored a season-high 18 points with eight boards last game and Dylan Disu netted 18 points and 10 rebounds but thankfully for Kentucky fouled out.

Flint added that Vandy and Kentucky are similar in that each gets out ahead in games, but struggles to finish them.

While their offensive numbers are good the Vanderbilt defense is not. They are last in the SEC in field goal defense and don’t defend the three very well either.  Kentucky needs to knock down some three-pointers, pick and roll and create offense.

Brandon Boston‘s confidence meter is on the rise as well scoring 17 points against Auburn on four 3-pointers and has looked good when taking it to the paint and looking for shots. He still goes through disappearing stretches which is baffling. He will no doubt miss a lot of shots but he just needs to keep looking for them.

Keion Brooks Jr. was another deciding factor in the Auburn victory ending up with 12 points, five rebounds, and four assists.

Isaiah Jackson will need to be his usual beast self grabbing rebounds and blocking shots like the 18 points and 11 rebounds against Auburn. Contributing points off highlight putbacks and dunks is the icing on his game and for the team.

Kentucky can ill afford for the turnovers to creep above 12 that’s when this team gets into trouble as Calipari has said with 11 to 12 being something he is comfortable with.

Kentucky needs to get ahead and stay ahead

While Kentucky currently boasts a nine-game winning streak currently against Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have had to rally from at least a nine-point deficit in six of those games, including five of the last six.

One memorable game that the Wildcats had to rally in at Vandy was a 22-point hole to win 82-79  on Feb. 22, 1997. This team definitely isn’t capable of that kind of feat.

Then there was the 1998 thriller when Nazr Mohammad on a buzzer-beater that no one was sure got off in time.

Kentucky also rallied from a nine-point hole in the team’s earlier matchup this season. It also marked the fifth straight season that the Cats overcame a halftime deficit against Vanderbilt.

• Feb. 11, 2020 – The Wildcats trailed by as much as 14 with 4:43 left in the first half
• Jan. 29, 2020 – UK came back from a 10-point second-half hole
• Jan. 12, 2019 – The Wildcats rallied from 12 down in the first half to win
• Jan. 30, 2018 – Kentucky came back from a 14-point deficit for the victory in overtime
• Feb. 28, 2017 – The Wildcats stormed back from a 19-point first-half hole
• Jan. 5, 2021 – Kentucky rallied back from nine points, including a seven-point halftime deficit

While this may be difficult to watch and cause eyes to roll and stomachs to churns we are most likely in for a traditional Wildcats/Commodore juggernaut.

Still, a win tonight by Kentucky would bode very well heading across the state to Knoxville.

Mintz admitted this team and Calipari hasn’t given up the gauntlet.

“Oh yeah, Coach Cal and our coaching staff have been very optimistic. The faith that they have in us is unbelievable. The spirit is never low. No one is worried about, OK, super down season. OK, how can we still pick up the pieces and try to put this puzzle together? That’s been their focus all season. No one is ever pounding our heads, making us lower ourselves because of our current situation. Now, it’s like, how can we make a run with what we have and our circumstances? That’s what we’re trying to do right now.”

Kenpom has Kentucky winning 71-68 and the ESPN matchup predictor gives Kentucky a 60.8% chance of winning.