Kentucky made the most of its return to the Top 25, but may need another strong effort Saturday if it wants to stay in the rankings when it faces Vanderbilt in an SEC matchup at Rupp Arena.
Back in the poll for the first time since late November, the No. 25 Wildcats (15-3, 4-0) showed they belong there with an 87-49 victory at South Carolina on Tuesday, their 11th straight win. That put them a half-game up on Florida for the East Division lead.
The Wildcats shot a season-high 62.5 percent from the field and were 10-for-20 from 3-point range.
“Most of us think we’re a Top 25 team, no doubt,” said Kentucky guard Joe Crawford, who matched a career high with 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting. “But that’s not our main focus. That’s not our main goal. We want to be SEC champions. We don’t want to get into the Top 25 and get relaxed, not still be hungry to be champions.”
Kentucky probably doesn’t want to relax against Vanderbilt (12-6, 2-2). The Commodores have beaten their last three ranked opponents since falling 86-70 to then-No. 8 Georgetown in their season opener Nov. 15.
Vanderbilt made a season-high 15 3-pointers in 28 attempts and shot 58.3 percent overall in Wednesday’s 94-73 home win over No. 10 Alabama. The Commodores also have home wins over then-No. 16 Tennessee on Jan. 10 and then-No. 25 Georgia Tech on Dec. 9.
While Vanderbilt has been excellent at home, where it is 9-2 and allowing 66.9 points per game, it has struggled on the road. The Commodores are 1-3 as the visitors, allowing 77.5 points and going 0-2 in SEC contests.
“Last year, we won on the road and couldn’t win (at home),” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team beat Kentucky twice in 2005-06, including a 57-52 win at Rupp on Jan. 10, 2006 for the school’s first win there since 1974.
“I have no explanation other than everyone is finding it tough to play on the road. Our league is unlike any other in that, in other leagues, you can look at the schedule and say we’ll beat this team twice. (Everyone) in our league is capable of competing well.”
After Kentucky, Vanderbilt travels to No. 16 LSU on Wednesday.
Kentucky must find a way to contain Vandy leading scorer Shan Foster, who had 27 points against Alabama, well above his 15.4 season average.
Defense has been a key to the Wildcats’ recent run, as Kentucky has given up only 59.3 points per game in its last 11 contests. That’s slightly better than its season average of 62.5.
Kentucky’s last loss was 75-63 at then-No. 7 North Carolina on Dec. 2. All three of Kentucky’s defeats have come to ranked teams, including consecutive losses to then-No. 5 UCLA and then-No. 12 Memphis at the Maui Invitational in November.
“All the games we have played so far, we are learning from them and getting better,” said Randolph Morris, the Wildcats’ leading scorer and rebounder at 16.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. “That’s the most important thing.”