On a night when Rupp Arena was full of big blue hard hats, it took a blue-collar effort for Kentucky to fend off Vanderbilt, 56-47.
And this wasn’t your basic, high-hoops IQ, three-point draining Vandy squad that we’ve seen come to town through the years, although this season’s version of the Commodores certainly played that way for the first eight minutes.
Draining four of their first five triples, Vandy bolted to a 10-point lead. Eight minutes into the game it was 22-12.
That’s when the Cats went to work.
From then on, Kentucky outscored Vandy 44-25 with a workman-like effort. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it got the job done.
The Wildcats had to grind away at a Commodore zone defense that Vandy coach Bryce Drew didn’t abandon until the Cats were beginning to pull away in the final stages of the game. John Calipari said he saw it coming.
“I thought they were gonna play zone,” the UK coach said, despite the fact that Vandy had played zone on just 17 percent of its opponents’ possessions prior to Saturday night. “I saw them play Kansas State, and (Vandy) played zone. They played really well and had a chance to beat Kansas State.”
He said he also saw them play some zone against Georgia, which kept them in the game until the final minutes of what became a blowout. “So I told my team, They’re going to play zone from the get-go,” Calipari said.
And they did. And it was the Commodores who had more get-up-and-go, from the get-go. The Wildcats slogged through the zone offense they had been working on for the past two days.
“How ugly did that look against the zone?” he asked the fans in Rupp who had stuck around for his post-game radio show.
Pretty ugly, they had to be thinking.
It was easily the most zone defense played by one team the Cats have faced this season. Others have shown it, of course, but they weren’t able to come out and first bury threes, then successfully attack the rim and build a lead the way Vandy did.
The Kentucky guards seemed hesitant to attack and penetrate, looking for their bigger teammates. “We weren’t able to get P.J. (Washington) and Nick (Richards) the ball because we were standing 30 feet out,” he said.
The Cats did attack inside at times, Keldon Johnson channeling Jack Givens and occasionally curling at the top of the paint for jumpers, the way Givens did all night against Duke in the 1978 NCAA championship game.
Ashton Hagans at times would drive and look for Richards near the rim but only once did they successfully connect on an alley oop.
Richards played just 10 scant minutes, but they mattered. He scored, blocked shots and made Vandy players think twice about driving the lane. Calipari claims that at least one NBA scout told him every team in the league is looking for big men with Richards’ skill set. “Why isn’t he doing more?” Calipari says they’ve asked him.
He said he shared that impromptu scouting report with Richards – in front of the team. And if the sophomore center takes it to heart, he’ll see more minutes – and Kentucky might not have to fight so hard to beat mediocre teams.
Of course, Richards was on the bench when Vandy opened the game by tossing in triples from all over downtown Lexington. It’s become almost a tradition for this UK team – show the other guys some hospitality by giving them all the room they require behind the arc. Let them bury some three-pointers as you struggle to make shots at the other end.
And then, work your collective butt off to catch up and nail things down before you hear the final horn, signaling the fact that it’s quitting time. It’s a real workman-like effort, only it drives your fans batty.
Hard hats can be essential on a lot of jobs, but they’d love to see a UK team that plays like it just stepped out of the executive boardroom. That’s what blowouts look like.