Kentucky has been looking for a marquee victory all season. On Sunday, the Wildcats can finally get one and gain the inside track on a bye for the Southeastern Conference tournament with a victory at No. 17 Vanderbilt.
Kentucky (19-8, 8-5 SEC East)—which is 0-5 against Top 25 teams this season—and Vanderbilt (18-9, 8-5) are tied for second in the East Division, one-half game ahead of Tennessee and Georgia. The top two teams in each division receive a bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament and would need only three wins to claim the conference tournament title.
Last season, the Wildcats failed to claim one of those byes for the first time since 1989 and won two games before losing to South Carolina in the semifinals.
“Well, that’s the most important thing. We saw what happened last year when we had to play on Thursday,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “There’s nothing more important than getting that extra day of practice or rest so you can prepare for a tournament. Last year we didn’t get a bye, and we won two games, but we came up short against South Carolina. It’s always important for several reasons.”
This is nearly a must-win game for Kentucky to have any chance of claiming the bye since Vanderbilt won the first game between the teams 72-67 on Jan. 20 at Rupp Arena. It was the third straight win in the series for the Commodores, who have not beaten Kentucky four straight times since sweeping the series in 1973 and 1974.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “We’ve had some extremely hard fought games with them.”
Vanderbilt is 6-2 against ranked teams but coming off an 83-70 loss Wednesday at Mississippi State that came on the heels of its upset of then-No. 1 Florida on Feb. 17 by an identical score. While the Commodores hit 11 3-pointers against the Bulldogs, they shot just 42.4 percent from the field and were outrebounded 41-30.
Derrick Byars, who averages a team-high 16.4 points, was held to seven on 2-for-9 shooting while backcourt partner Shan Foster—second on the team at 14.9 points per game—had just 11 while making 4 of 11 shots.
The Commodores have won 11 straight at home since a 70-62 loss to Furman on Nov. 28, and a win in this game would give them their first winning record in the SEC since 1997.
Kentucky avoided a four-game losing streak with a 70-63 win over LSU on Tuesday. Randolph Morris had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Jodie Meeks added a season-high 18 points off the bench for the Wildcats, who rallied from an early 16-point deficit.
Morris has averaged 16.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in his last five games, and Smith has been trying to get his players to feed the center the ball more on the offensive end.
“I think he is starting to play more consistent,” Smith said. “We need to find him more and get the ball to him when he’s open. I think he needs to be a little more aggressive defensively and work on keeping the ball out of the post.”
Kentucky leads the all-time series 129-39 and is 51-23 all-time at Vanderbilt.