Vanderbilt is just beginning to recover from the tailspin it went into after losing to Kentucky last month. The momentum built by the Wildcats since then, meanwhile, may have saved their season.
Winners of three straight, the 24th-ranked Commodores look to avenge their first loss of the season Tuesday night when they host the surging Wildcats.
Vanderbilt (20-4, 5-4 SEC) won its first 16 games by an average margin of 11.4 points and was ranked 13th before losing its conference opener 79-73 in double overtime to Kentucky (12-9, 6-2) on Jan. 12.
After dropping three of their next four, the Commodores have won three straight entering their rematch with the Wildcats.
Kentucky, meanwhile, struggled through non-conference play, losing nine of its first 16 games before upsetting Vanderbilt. The Wildcats lost their next two, but have since put together a five-game winning streak that began with a 72-66 victory over then-No. 3 Tennessee on Jan. 22.
“When it was at its most bleak, the season wasn’t over, and the season’s not over now,” first-year Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “So you play every single game until the end and you see where you are at the end. That’s what we said then and what we are saying now.”
The Wildcats’ early season struggles include a 16-point home loss to Gardner-Webb in Gillispie’s second game, a loss to top-ranked North Carolina and a defeat at home to unheralded San Diego. Now, Kentucky trails only Tennessee for first place in the SEC East.
But the Wildcats will be facing a Commodores team that has reached 20 wins the fastest in school history. In 2007-08, the Commodores also have won all 14 games at home, where they return after two straight road wins.
The Commodores needed some late-game heroics in their latest victory, when Jermaine Beal’s short fadeaway jumper with 0.6 seconds left gave them a 66-65 victory over South Carolina on Saturday.
Vanderbilt had just 10 turnovers in that game after committing 22 in January’s matchup with Kentucky.
“I would anticipate that this will be a similar type game,” Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said of facing the Wildcats again. “I think Kentucky is obviously playing as well as anybody in the league.
“They’re the only team to beat Tennessee. They’ve won five in a row. They are an extremely talented and deep basketball team.”
Shan Foster, who had 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field in the first matchup with Kentucky, continues to lead Vanderbilt. The senior guard, the SEC’s top shooter from 3-point range at 45.6 percent, finished with 21 points versus the Gamecocks.
Foster is averaging 17.8 points and shooting 52.9 percent (18-for-34) from beyond the arc in his last five games against the Wildcats.
Ramel Bradley, meanwhile, is Kentucky’s top perimeter player, averaging 16.0 points and a team-high 3.2 assists per game. He had 19 points, including three clutch 3-pointers, in a 62-52 win over Alabama on Saturday after missing a victory over Auburn on Wednesday due to a stomach virus.
“It was great having Ramel back out there,” said Wildcats freshman forward Patrick Patterson, who leads the team with 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds a contest. “He brings a lot of energy to the team.”
Kentucky has won five in a row for the first time since an 11-game run from Dec. 5, 2006-Jan. 16, 2007.
The Wildcats lead the all-time series with the Commodores 129-40.