No. 12 Kentucky wary of last-place Vanderbilt

NCAA Basketball
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No. 12 Kentucky will try to hold on to at least a share of first place in the SEC when it visits Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in Nashville, Tenn.

The 12th-ranked Wildcats (18-5, 8-2 SEC) enter Tuesday in a three-way tie with Auburn and LSU atop the league standings. LSU hosts Missouri on Tuesday, while Auburn plays Wednesday at home against Alabama.

The Wildcats have won six of their past seven games, including Saturday’s 77-64 decision at Tennessee, which snapped UK’s four-game losing streak at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Wildcats have ample scoring punch, led by guard Immanuel Quickley at 14.8 points per game. Forward Nick Richards is at 14.6 points per game, followed by guards Tyrese Maxey (13.4) and Ashton Hagans (12.3). But their play has been uneven at times, as losses to Evansville, Utah and South Carolina have proven.

On Saturday, Kentucky needed a boost from reserve freshman guard Johnny Juzang, who had a career-high 13 points, and freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr. (four points, team-high nine rebounds) to pull away from the Vols. Juzang entered averaging 2.3 points per game.

“Here’s the biggest thing why you gotta have a team full of guys ready to go. We had a couple guys not play well,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters after the game. “They’re not machines; they’re not robots. Maybe it was a bad matchup. Whatever you want to say. So here comes Keion. And here comes Johnny.”

Vanderbilt (9-14, 1-9) is last in the SEC standings but could be a tougher out than it seems.

Then-No. 18 LSU found that out Wednesday, when the Commodores posted a shocking 99-90 victory over the visiting Tigers at Memorial Gym. That snapped the league’s longest regular-season conference losing streak at 26 games, thanks to career high in points from guards Saben Lee (33) and Maxwell Evans (31).

The fact that Vanderbilt can put a scare into someone shouldn’t surprise Kentucky.

The teams met in Lexington on Jan. 29. Kentucky emerged a 71-62 victor after Vanderbilt held a 10-point lead in the second half.

Over their past four games, the Commodores have also taken Florida and Mississippi State to the wire thanks to Lee (16.9 points per game for the season) and guard Scotty Pippen Jr. (11.2), who have excelled at getting out in transition as well as driving to the rim in half-court sets.

It’s a credit to coach Jerry Stackhouse, who has made adjustments with a limited talent pool; star Aaron Nesmith (23.0) has missed the past nine games with a foot fracture.

Stackhouse mixed his defensive looks in an 80-72 loss at Mississippi State on Saturday, when Vanderbilt also had a second-half lead.

“We competed hard and fought back a little bit,” Stackhouse said. “We tried to slow them down with a half-court press where we dropped back in a zone. It caused them a few problems but it was one of those games where we had opportunities and had good looks that didn’t fall for us.”

–Field Level Media

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