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Kentucky-Vanderbilt Preview

AP - Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Whenever the nation's top-ranked team visits Memorial Gym, the Vanderbilt Commodores have a knack for defending their home court.

They feed off the frenzy of a sellout crowd that bounces around the 60-year-old building's cinderblock walls and the unique seating arrangements that puts players in the middle of an elevated stage.

The last four No. 1 teams to visit the Southeastern Conference's oldest men's basketball arena have left with a loss dating back to 1987.

The Commodores' goal is to make it five when No. 1 Kentucky visits Saturday night.

"They certainly do a good job getting us excited for the game," Vanderbilt senior center Festus Ezeli said of the home fans. "They've been talking about it too for a while, so we're excited."

Vanderbilt is 7-14 all-time against No. 1 teams with six of those wins coming at Memorial - the only gym in college basketball with the team benches on the end lines rather than the sideline.

The Commodores beat Tennessee in 2008, Florida in 2007, Kentucky under Rick Pitino in 1993 and North Carolina in 1987.

Kentucky coach John Calipari isn't sure how his young team with three freshmen and two sophomores starting will handle the scene featuring a late tipoff after a full day of excitement thanks to ESPN's GameDay broadcasting from Memorial.

"It's nuts, doesn't need to be GameDay," Calipari said. "I heard they changed the benches to the sides. Did they? They didn't. See, that's a problem."

Add to that, Kentucky is just 3-7 at Memorial since 2002 where the Commodores beat the Wildcats 81-77 last season.

Vanderbilt junior John Jenkins said the most recent wins over No. 1 are moot.

"We've got to win this one," he noted.

These Wildcats are very young with Calipari rotating four freshmen, two sophomores and a senior. Doron Lamb is among the few Wildcats to play meaningful minutes at Memorial.

"It's tough out there," Lamb said. "It's different because how you get subbed in, the benches are behind the basket. We're not really worried about that. We're worried about how we're going to guard them, how we're going to run our offense against them."

Vanderbilt was the team expected to challenge Kentucky in the SEC as the preseason pick to finish second, countering the Wildcats' athleticism and talent with the league's most seasoned starters.

Instead, Kentucky (24-1, 10-0) is looking to match the 2002-03 team's perfect run through SEC play. Vandy coach Kevin Stallings notes the Wildcats are just a shot away from being undefeated if not for Christian Watford's 3-pointer at the buzzer at Indiana on Dec. 10.

"You watch them play, and it is an absolutely difficult challenge because they're not ranked No. 1 because somebody just decided to put Kentucky in the top," Stallings said. "They've earned their way there and for a good reason. They're good on defense. They're good on the boards. Every statistic you look at, their league stats are completely dominant ... They're a tough team."

The Commodores (17-7, 6-3) have the SEC's top two scorers in league play in Jenkins and senior Jeffery Taylor. But they've also struggled with injuries and consistency this season. Now healthy, they know they need a win Saturday night to have any chance at chasing down Kentucky.

"It's going to be a really tough game for us," Jenkins said.

Vanderbilt's challenge will be scoring against Kentucky, the nation's stingiest defense holding opponents to 35.8 percent shooting. Kentucky features the nation's leading shot blocker in freshman Anthony Davis. It's a combination that has Stallings very impressed.

"Obviously Davis changes the game around the goal, and he makes you think about other options because trying to take it in in front of him is not a very intelligent option most of the time," Stallings said. "So they're very, very, very, in my opinion, underrated defensively."

Vanderbilt can counter from beyond the arc.

The Commodores lead the SEC averaging 9.1 3-pointers a game a league play even though the Wildcats held another efficient team from behind the arc, Florida, to go 6 of 27 in a 78-58 victory on Tuesday.

That was Kentucky's 16th straight win, which includes four straight by 20 points or more. Davis insists cockiness is not a problem.

"No, not at all," Davis said. "We've just got to go out there, play hard. We're confident. Coach Cal tries to keep that in our head to a certain extent, not get a big-headed thing that we're unbeatable."

The Wildcats are one of the nation's best and have their sights set on a national title - more reasons why Vanderbilt wants this win so much.

"We're trying to arrive," Stallings said. "We want to be a program that people respect in that vein."

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AP Sports Writer Colin Fly in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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