3-Point Shot: UK vs. Vanderbilt preview


Sophomore guard Tyler Ulis (3) drives the baseline during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide on Tuesday, February 23, 2016 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 78-53. Photo by Hunter Mitchell | Staff

Josh Ellis

No. 16 UK (21-7, 11-4) v. Vanderbilt (17-11, 9-6)                          

Tipoff: Saturday, 4 p.m., Memorial Gymnasium, Nashville, Tennessee TV: CBS Radio: UK Radio Network, Sirius Channel 81, XM Channel 81

Three points of emphasis for UK’s final road trip of the regular season:

Defending home court

Vanderbilt suffered a 76-57 loss in Rupp Arena in its first matchup with the blue and white this season, but Saturday gives the Commodores an opportunity to even the series at one and tighten the race for a SEC regular season champion.

Vandy enters the game as the second best three-point defense (28.5 percent) and the sixth best in opponent field goal percentage (38 percent), two factors that could keep the Cats from earning their 12th conference game of the year.

“They’re really rebounding the ball. They’re scoring the ball around the basket,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “(Damian) Jones is really doing well. They’re playing a little bigger at guard. They’re defending. It’s always a hard game up there. It’s a hard game.”

With an exuberant crowd backing up an intense defensive effort from the five guys sporting ‘Vanderbilt’ across their chest, the Cats will need to continue playing some of their best ball of the season if they plan to escape Nashville with a win.

Reshuffling the deck

Whether it be Dominique Hawkins’ injury early in the year, Marcus Lee wearing a protective mask out of the blue, Alex Poythress hurting his knee (again), or Derek Willis rolling his ankle, UK has been plagued by the injury bug this season — which has caused Calipari to switch up lineups and game plans more than he’s used to this year.

With the absence of Willis on Saturday, the Cats will have to continue to make adjustments and find ways to fill the junior forward’s 7.8 points and four rebounds per game. 

“Well, we took 10 3s (without Willis against Alabama), so obviously we played different. We put a few different wrinkles in. We’re going to try a couple of things today,” Calipari said on Wednesday. “It’s just trying to figure out now — normally we have a different team at the beginning of every year and we reshuffle the deck and here we go. How’s this team play? We’ve had to reshuffle the deck in season like three times now.”

Finishing strong

Only three regular season games remain for UK — at Vanderbilt, at Florida and at home against LSU. All three teams have a chance to hear their name called on Selection Sunday, but a victory over UK would almost solidify any of the three to make the field of 68. Freshman big man Isaac Humphries says facing desperate teams only makes the Cats more focused on the task at hand.

“It just makes us more motivated to win really,” Humphries said. “I know that we all just want to go at it and get these three last games. We’re just determined now to get these three.”

If the Cats can hold on and end the regular season on a four-game winning streak, they could position themselves for another deep NCAA Tournament run.