The Vanderbilt Commodores are living the 2019 season all over again in 2020. The 2019 season involved a severe injury to the team’s best player, Darius Garland.
By Matt Zemek
The team never recovered from that one massive setback. In 2020, Aaron Nesmith was the team’s best player, and he got knocked out for the season with an injury several weeks ago. Vanderbilt is painfully limited and undermanned without Nesmith, so when sizing up Wednesday’s game in Rupp Arena, there isn’t much about Vanderbilt Kentucky has to worry about. Kentucky has to worry about KENTUCKY, and making itself a lot better down the stretch.
Kentucky did beat Texas Tech on the road – which isn’t easy – but while that is a quality win, we saw a lot of the same bad habits which had emerged in previous weeks. The Wildcats need to weed out those habits and remove them from the team’s identity as February arrives. Better tendencies have to be part of this team when March rolls around.
1 – Backcourt turnovers
Kentucky’s starting backcourt of Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, and Tyrese Maxey committed a combined 15 turnovers against Texas Tech. That is far too many turnovers for three players, and too many turnovers for the whole team. Yes, Kentucky has this incredible stat – the Wildcats have never lost a game under John Calipari when they have committed at least 20 turnovers (10-0) – but they obviously can’t keep giving away possessions. This is one of the foremost habits which has to be rooted out of the team’s personality as it moves along with its season. Ashton Hagans played better against Texas Tech than he had in previous weeks, but he can still protect the ball a lot better and make himself more useful at the offensive end of the floor. (His defense was great versus the Red Raiders.)
2 – Lean on Richards and Quickley
Nick Richards is the best player on this team, and Immanuel Quickley is the best backcourt scorer for the Wildcats. They both carried the load against Texas Tech, combining to score 46 of the Wildcats’ 76 points. No one else on the UK roster scored more than eight points this past Saturday. Balance and depth are important, but it is also essential in crunch time to make sure the best players are either getting the ball or drawing attention from the defense which leaves other players open. Feeding Richards and Quickley needs to become a more consistent habit. Richards, for instance, got just 10 field goal attempts against Texas Tech. He can – and should – get more than 10 field goal attempts per game against most opponents.
3 – The bench
In an overtime game, a team must play 225 minutes in terms of allocating playing time to five players in a 45-minute game. Four Kentucky starters played 39 or more of a possible 45 minutes. Only E.J. Montgomery played fewer than 39 minutes among the starters, with 25. Nate Sestina played 21 minutes. Other than that six-man rotation, though, few players earned extended playing time. Keion Brooks Jr. played seven minutes, Johnny Juzang eight. Six players had to shoulder the workload. In the middle of the season, that is a recipe for disaster if bench minutes and bench production don’t improve in February. Kentucky needs more bench strength so that the starters can be at their best when it matters most.