The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt hits the road seeking revenge against Kentucky

The Commodores will look to defeat the Wildcats for the first time since 2016 as they travel to Rupp Arena for a pivotal end of season matchup.
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Narenkumar Thirmiya
Liam Robbinson dunks on Florida, as photographed on Feb. 23, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Narenkumar Thirmiya)

With their backs against the wall, the Vanderbilt Commodores (16-13, 9-7) have an opportunity to make some noise on the first day of March as they travel to Lexington to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (20-9, 11-5). 

After a rocky start to February that saw Big Blue lose by double digits at home against Arkansas and on the road against Georgia, head coach John Calipari has seemingly righted the ship in Lexington. Kentucky has captured four straight victories — all of which are in quadrant one — to get back into the AP Poll’s Top 25 for the first time since New Year’s Eve. 

The Wildcats are sitting comfortably in third place in the SEC standings approaching their final home game of the season on Wednesday. Kentucky has impressed all over the court during this four-game win streak that’s seen it topple Mississippi State and Florida on the road and Auburn and Tennessee at home. The Wildcats currently rank at No. 20 and No. 22 in the country in the NET rankings and on KenPom, respectively. 

Despite the early turbulence, Kentucky has seemingly found the recipe that many expected when it was ranked No. 4 in the country all the way back in October. So, what has propelled Kentucky to this sudden turnaround after many viewed them as a mere bubble team halfway through January? 

Two words: paint dominance. 

This should come as a surprise to few. When a team has the best rebounder in the country — and perhaps in the history of the SEC, it’s bound to find success. For Kentucky, that dominance on the glass comes in the form of Oscar Tshiebwe, who continues to get it done on a nightly basis after winning last year’s Wooden Award. The senior big man is averaging 16.4 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, despite only checking in at 6’9. The latter figure ranks second in Division I, behind only Purdue’s 7’4 star Zach Edey.

Yet, it hasn’t been only Tshiebwe for the Wildcats. The whole roster has stepped up when it comes to crashing the glass. During its four-game win streak, Calipari’s crew has outrebounded opponents by an average margin of 15.2 boards per game. Aside from Tshiebwe, contributions from Jacob Toppin (7.8 rebounds per game) and Chris Livingston (8 rebounds per game) have helped Kentucky dominate inside. 

Big Blue controls nearly everything inside of the paint on both sides of the ball. The team ranks first in the SEC in both offensive rebounds and offensive rebounds allowed, per KenPom. Kentucky not only grabs the most rebounds on the offensive glass, but its opponents generate the fewest second-chance opportunities as well.

While they might be the first thing to pop out when looking at Kentucky’s statistics, rebounds are just the tip of the iceberg.

Kentucky boasts the second-most efficient offense in the SEC, and it has done so by, again, controlling the paint. Spearheaded by Tshiebwe’s proficiency inside, the Wildcats score 57.8% of their points inside the arc, the second-most in the conference. In comparison, 23.9% of their points come from three, and 18.3% come from the charity stripe, statistics that both fall at No. 12 in the conference. 

It’s clear that Kentucky’s success comes from its ability to dominate under and around the rim. This skill was put on full display in late January when the Wildcats defeated Vanderbilt 69-53 in Memorial Gymnasium. They outrebounded the Commodores 37-24 as Tshiebwe went for 15 points and 13 rebounds in a game that got out of hand quickly. 

What can Vanderbilt do differently this time around? 

For starters, the presence of Liam Robbins should help. It certainly hurt the Commodores that Robbins was still recovering from an ankle sprain when these two teams met for the first time. Robbins has been the focal point of the Commodores’ offense for much of the season, and they’ll need him to continue to score at a prolific rate to win this one. Tshiebwe is one of the premier defenders in the conference, but Robbins has proven he can succeed no matter the matchup. The fifth-year senior put up 32 points and 10 rebounds against projected first-team All-SEC center Colin Castleton and the Florida Gators. He followed it up a week later with 24 points and 12 rebounds against Johni Broome and the Auburn Tigers. Robbins’s unique length and strength — as well as a newfound confidence in his jumper — have made him a nightmare to guard. 

Yet, as important as his performance on the offensive end will be in this one, Robbins’s defense might be even more key. The 7-footer has been a complete force inside as of late, averaging 4.6 blocks per game through the team’s last seven. 

Interestingly enough, the matchup against Tshiebwe should slightly favor Robbins. Robbins has struggled to slow down some of the quicker centers in the league like LSU’s KJ Williams, who went for 35 points against the Commodores last week. Williams’s ability to go to work inside while also popping out from 3-point range gave Robbins a headache. Tshiebwe is a completely different player, however, as he has attempted only two triples on the season. Robbins thrives playing defense in the paint, and Tshiebwe does nearly all of his offensive damage there as well. It’s also worth noting that the Robbins has three inches of height on Tshiebwe. 

Beyond Robbins, the Commodores will need contributions from their secondary scoring options. In the January loss, Vanderbilt’s second through fifth leading scorers Myles Stute, Tyrin Lawrence, Jordan Wright and Ezra Manjon combined for just 24 points on just 8-for-30 shooting from the field.

There’s no reason to believe that they cannot contribute, as all four have really turned things around since that matchup. Manjon has turned his season around entirely, using his world-class speed to create efficient looks for himself at the rim, as well as his teammates all over the court. 

Lawrence has been a force while going to his left around the rim while continuously improving on his deep ball. Wright has been invaluable on the defensive end while serving as a supplementary scoring option. Myles Stute scored 11 points in this weekend’s victory over Florida and has shown signs of returning to his once-prolific 3-point rate.

Only time will tell, and the two teams will square off on Wednesday, March 1 at 6 p.m. CST in Lexington, Kentucky.

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About the Contributors
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Narenkumar Thirmiya
Narenkumar Thirmiya, Staff Photographer
Narenkumar Thirmiya ('24) is from Orlando, Fla., and is majoring in neuroscience and medicine, health, and society in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, he is streaming TV, playing the piano or guitar or exploring nature photography. You can reach him at [email protected].
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