To upset Kentucky, Commodores must let it fly

Ziyi+Liu
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To upset Kentucky, Commodores must let it fly

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Year in and year out, the SEC runs through Kentucky.

This 2016-17 season is no different. The Wildcats pace the league with a 3-0 record, which comes as no surprise. But what is a surprise, however, is that these wins over Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Arkansas have come by a combined 91 points.

You read that right. That’s a margin of victory of over 30 points per game.

This is what Vanderbilt faces Tuesday night at Memorial Gymnasium after a heartbreaking 59-56 loss at Alabama. Only three days after blowing a 14-point second-half lead to a mediocre Crimson Tide squad, the ‘Dores must go toe-to-toe with a team that has ripped through its first three league opponents.

However, Kentucky isn’t infallible; losses to UCLA and Louisville have made that much clear. Despite the Wildcats three likely first-round NBA draft picks in Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, Vanderbilt can compete if it follows one simple strategy.

Play your game.

You read that right; the Commodores should not try to make numerous, fancy adjustments to the unique challenges Kentucky’s athleticism and speed present. Head coach Bryce Drew’s squad can’t possibly hope to keep this game close if it doesn’t play to its strengths. Those strengths, as everyone knows, are their ability to shoot the three and center Luke Kornet’s defense at the rim. If Vanderbilt can manufacture decent outside shots and funnel Kentucky’s offense toward Kornet, it’s got a shot.

As good as Kentucky is, these strengths of Vanderbilt’s are formidable based on any scale. The ‘Dores rate in the 93rd percentile nationally on spot-ups and the 96th percentile on jump shots in the half court, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Similarly, Vanderbilt rates in the 85th percentile defensively around the basket, allowing a measly .981 points per possession.

These numbers can hold up against any team; Kentucky’s own 90th-percentile finishing in the interior will certainly test Kornet, but the Wildcats’ 47th-percentile defense on contested catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half court marks an advantage for Vanderbilt.

It’s that three-point shooting that sets the stage for a potentially advantageous situation. The dirty little secret of Kentucky’s season comes in this specific aspect of the game. While the Wildcats’ defense is objectively one of the best in the country, opponents have missed open jump shots at an above average rate all year (the 84th percentile, to be exact). In fact, according to Synergy, opponents have shot better on guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers (33.8 percent) than on unguarded ones (31.7 percent) against coach John Calipari’s squad.

Fun fact: Catch-and-shoot jumpers are the Commodores’ go-to shots on offense, and they’re great at making them. The Commodores knock down 44 percent of these same open catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half court, good for an 86th-percentile, scorching hot 1.3 points per possession. This comes despite the fact that Vanderbilt’s schedule to date has featured the ninth-toughest defensive competition in the country, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy.

The fact that Kentucky has dodged some catch-and-shoot bullets this year doesn’t mean Vanderbilt will shoot the lights out, and there are other hurdles for Drew’s team to clear to make this a game. An inability to finish defensive possessions with rebounds (Kentucky ranks 10th nationally in offensive rebound rate, per Pomeroy) or take care of the ball would probably tank the Commodores’ chances.

But history tells us some regression toward the mean is inevitable when it comes to the amount of open jumpers opponents have missed against Kentucky. Will the correction start Tuesday night in the form of some Memorial Magic?

We’ll have to wait to find out.

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