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- UK commit Stanley Williams ready to bring the “Boom” to Kentucky football
- Calipari uses Twitter to explain Kentucky’s recruiting success
- Longtime sports writer Joey Fosko dies from apparent heart attack
By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE — Kedren Johnson says Kentucky-Vanderbilt is really not a rivalry, but the Vandy sophomore says the games are always fun.
“It’s just a good environment for basketball. Even before I got here, the fans got into it,” said Johnson after scoring 13 points Thursday to help the Commodores beat Arkansas 75-72 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and advance to Friday night’s quarterfinal game against Kentucky.
The fans likely will be into the game again but it will be Kentucky fans packing Bridgestone Arena to see if the Cats can beat Vanderbilt for a third time this season. Of course, last year UK fans dominated attendance in New Orleans when Vanderbilt stunned UK in the SEC title game before the Cats went on to win the NCAA title.
“If there are 20,000 Kentucky fans, we have played in front of 24,000 (in Rupp Arena),” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “The atmosphere will not bother us. Kentucky’s players will. We are not going to worry about the fans. Our guys will compete. They are not afraid. I think we are playing our best basketball of the season.
“We just have to play to win. I don’t think Kentucky has to beat us to get in the (NCAA) tourney. I think personally they are a tourney team. But it will be a fun game.”
Stallings said perhaps his players don’t even understand whey Kentucky is always the team to beat.
“Kentucky has earned the right to everybody’s rival. I am jealous of that. They get everybody’s best shot because their program has been better,” Stallings said. “Everybody wants to beat Kentucky.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings made sure to let Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel that he was thinking about him after his season-ending injury. The Kentucky freshman watched UK beat Vanderbilt 74-70 in Rupp Arena Wednesday after having his year ended when he tore the ACL in his left knee last week at Florida.
“I am very disappointed for the young man that tore his ACL. That is a shame. I had a daughter that tore her ACL three times, so I am familiar with the injury and my heart goes out to him. Our best wishes go out to him,” said Stallings.
Kentucky lost by 30 points at Tennessee Saturday in its first game without Noel.
“I think one of two things generally happens with that (when a star player is hurt). Either the next game the team pulls together and overcomes the loss with emotion, effort and energy where everyone plays above themselves — which it’s pretty apparent that that wasn’t what happened on Saturday,” Stallings said. “Then, generally speaking, if that doesn’t happen they need some time to re-orient and get used to what else is going to take place.”
Vanderbilt center Josh Henderson, who had 13 points and two rebounds Wednesday, said facing UK without Noel was different.
“He is a great player. He is really good at protecting the rim. He is one of the most athletic guys,” Henderson said. “He led the SEC in rebound and blocks. It definitely opened up the lane and it definitely took away a big presence they have.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings knows Kentucky lost center Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury last week and lost by 30 points at Tennessee Saturday without him. Still, Stallings expects UK will be “raring” to go against his team Wednesday in Rupp Arena.
“We’re coming off a pretty good performance against a good Texas A&M team on Saturday and it’s a game I thought our team played pretty well in. We were happy to win that and now we know we’ve got a big challenge in front of us,” said Stallings Monday. “Had a great game against Kentucky the first time around and would anticipate that’s what we’ll have again. But anyway, I know they’re coming off of a disappointing game but I’m sure they’ll be raring to go on Wednesday night. So we look forward to the challenge of going up there and playing and hopefully we can go and play well.”
Stallings said he wasn’t sure what he could learn about UK without Noel from what happened at Tennessee.
“Tennessee would have beaten probably anyone in the country the way they played on Saturday. So I don’t know how much you can really look into that,” Stallings said. “They still have really good players, still have a bunch of guys that are projected to be very high draft choices. So they lost a key guy for sure, but they’re still very, very talented and very, very good. I’m sure that was a case of bad timing on Saturday and I’m sure they’ll be a lot better by Wednesday.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari hopes so, especially since UK also has to host Missouri Saturday night.
“Two good teams. Vandy beats Texas A&M. They played Tennessee to two great games,” Calipari said. “Kev (Stallings) is doing a great job with his team, putting them in positions to have a chance to win every game they play. You look at Missouri’s guard play, which means they have a chance any game they are in. They’ve got big people inside that can do damage, so they’re a top-20 team. Two teams that are going to be rough games for us right now.”
Calipari indicated on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference that he learned Saturday what other defensive changes he must make without Noel, the nation’s leading shot blocker. With no Noel, Tennessee players got inside and scored time after time.
“Well, I’m not going to tell you everything we’re trying to do because what I’m trying to do is give this team the best opportunity to win games, to put themselves in a position when the game is winding down, we have our chances,” Calipari said. “And it’s on both offense and defense. Aside from X, Y, Z, that’s what we have to do and that’s what we’re trying to figure out. And it’s obvious without Nerlens we are a little different. It doesn’t mean we’re 40 points different (like they were after beating Tennessee b 10 points earlier this season), but we’re a little different, and we’re going to have play stronger. We’re going to have to cover for each other a little more because you can’t just let people shoot layups, which is what happened last game.”
Kentucky also had no inside offensive presence without Noel, who was averaging 10 points per game.
“I don’t think they ran a lot of plays for him to begin with and they didn’t run a lot of plays for Anthony Davis and Anthony Davis still scored a lot of points against you,” Stallings said. “But again, they still have really good players and guys that can shoot and guys that can post and guys that can drive and they’re good in transition. It’s still a very potent offensive team even without Noel and he certainly is an outstanding player.”
Calipari wouldn’t indicate whether Jarrod Polson, who had 11 points and six rebounds, would start at point guard again after making his first start. Ryan Harrow lost his spot to Polson and did not have a point, rebound or assist at Tennessee in 20 minutes. “We got two practices here. We’ll evaluate that and see what we do,” Calipari said.
Stallings hopes his team is better than the one UK beat in January.
“There are times when we’re scoring the ball a little bit better. Maybe our offensive play has gotten somewhat better. I wouldn’t call us an offensive juggernaut yet, but at times we’re a little bit better offensively than maybe we were a month or two ago,” Stallings said. “I still think that the thing that’s been consistent about us that’s given us a chance to win has been our defense.
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By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not hard for Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings to explain why Kentucky faces such raucous crowds every time it goes on the road, especially in Southeastern Conference play.
“They dominated the league forever. They face that buzz where they go,” said Stallings when asked about the atmosphere in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium for tonight’s Southeastern Conference opener against Kentucky. “They are the hunted.”
He noted that UK had won more SEC championships than every other league member combined.
“When you are dominant like that, of course people get excited to beat you,” Stallings said. “They face that wherever they do. Our fans love it when Kentucky comes to town. They have a great program and great tradition and I think all of us aspire to have some of the success they have had. Not only coaches and players, but fans alike. That is what creates a different atmosphere when they come to town. It is always a great challenge to play them and beat them. It is a great way for us to start the conference season. If you can win a game like that it can catapult you forward.”
Stallings mistakenly though UK senior guard Julius Mays played against Vandy last year — Mays transferred to UK from Wright State this season. But Mays knows this could be a difficult game.
“It’s good for school to be back in and for us to start to play on a more consistent basis. Instead of having to practice against each other and beating up on each other, we can do it on another team,” Mays said. “I’ve never played there but I’ve watched it on TV and I expect it to be a big crowd and it to be loud.””
Stallings said beating UK in last year’s SEC Tournament final before the Cats went on to win the national title was “very meaningful” for Vanderbilt and the Commodores will toast that feat before tonight’s game.
“But it takes great performances like that to beat teams with great talent and that is the kind of performance we will need again. They have great talent. It’s young talent, but last year’s team was young talent and they won the national championship,” Stallings said.
Kentucky freshman Archie Goodwin believes the non-conference schedule that include road losses at Notre Dame and Louisville along with a neutral court loss to No. 1 Duke has UK ready for SEC play.
“The losses that we took on the road were tough ones. But we grew from them each time. I think that it has been able to help us out a lot,” Goodwin said. “We were a lot more competitive against Louisville then we were against Notre Dame and that just came from us doing this coach Cal (Calipari) stuff. Hopefully we can continue to do what we’ve been doing.”
I know not every Kentucky basketball fan likes Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, but I’ve always found him to be almost blunt honest when he answers questions, especially about the University of Kentucky program.
That’s why I was interested to hear what his reaction was to the new SEC scheduling format that does not guarantee UK and Vanderbilt will play two games each season — one in Lexington, one in Nashville.
“I think that will be one of the disappointments to the new scheduling format but I don’t think there was any way to satisfy everyone (with the SEC adding two teams and two games to the schedule). It’s just one of the by-products of the new format,” said the Vanderbilt coach. “I know our fans will be disappointed in that, but that’s just the nature of it. If John’s teams continue to be as good as the one this year, I won’t miss playing them twice a year.”
Calipari’s team is going to be good again, but somehow I think Stallings is going to miss the UK-Vanderbilt game. He’s embraced playing UK and the Kentucky game at Vandy is one of my favorites each year.
But I also had to chuckle a bit when Stallings was asked what kind of feedback he had received from Vanderbilt fans.
“I don’t even know that our fans are aware yet. I think probably until we release a public schedule of what it is going to mean …. Again, there will still be years when we do play them twice. If we only play them once, just the way it goes. I know our fans in years we are not playing twice, I am sure our fans will be disappointed,” Stallings said.
Just like I’ll be disappointed not to have Stallings playing and talking about Kentucky twice a year.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says itâ€™s not hard to know why Kentucky is so good offensively this season.
â€œReally, really good players. Their scheme is good, but the players are really good,â€ Stallings said. â€œIn our case, Anthony Davis was terrific and we didnâ€™t provide a lot of resistance for him. But itâ€™s just more that they are just good. They are set up well. They play well together. They are big and long and skilled and they pass to each other well and they share it.
â€œThey are a hard cover for anybody, but there were things we could have done if we had not failed to execute that could have given us a little better chance. Again, the reason you donâ€™t play perfectly against a team like that is they put you in spots not to play well.
Stallings says Kentucky has also made tweaks to its offense that have made the Wildcats more productive.
â€œThey have adjusted their offense quite a bit. He (John Calipari) suits it to his personnel, which is what good coaches do,â€ Stallings said. â€œThey put their guys in spots to be the most effective they can be. That is what all of us are trying to do. Certainly that is what John has done and they run their offense very well.â€
Stallings said his team â€œexpectedâ€ to play well at Kentucky and did.
â€œKentucky had to play well and they did, especially on offense. We were just beaten by a better team,â€ the Vanderbilt coach said. â€œI did not think our defense played the way we could have at times, but again they are obviously a terrific team and we have to be better defensively that we were (to beat them).â€
By LARRY VAUGHT
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says almost every Kentucky-Vanderbilt game has been “intense” and he expects more of the same Saturday.
The game could haveÂ a big impact on NCAA Tournament seedings for both teams. A Kentucky win should all but assure the Cats a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney even if they stumble at Florida. For Vanderbilt, it would be a resume-builder and enhance the team’s NCAA seed.
But Stallings knows how hard it can be to win in Rupp Arena. No current Vanderbilt player has won there even though the Commodores had a chance last year before falling 68-66.
So how hard is winning in Rupp Arena, a spot where John Calipari has not lost since taking over three years ago as UK’s coach?
“It’s very intimidating to begin with,” Stallings said. “There’s 24,000 people. (Memorial Gym’s) an intimidating place and there’s 14,000. So you imagine another 10,000 people in one building, all wearing blue. And that doesn’t even begin to talk about their players and how good they are. What is so difficult about playing there? Everything.”
Don’t forget, though, that Vandy is 5-5 in the last 10 games against Kentucky and had a chance to win in Nashville after falling behind by 14 points as part of the ESPN GameDay experience. Vandy got the lead back, but didn’t score the final four minutes.
“I think I was a little too pumped up. I struggled in the first half because I was a little too hyper and was thinking about it too much. This time I’m going to work on staying more calm.Â We’re excited to see how much better we are since the last time. We didn’t play our best basketball in the last four minutes. We’re in an upswing right now, playing pretty well. We have to keep it going,” Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli said.
Kentucky (27-1, 13-0) got it going at the right time at Mississippi State Tuesday to overcome a 13-point halftime deficit and win 73-64.
“I watched their game against Mississippi State and that second half was about the most impressive thing I’ve seen in college basketball this year. They were absolutely terrific and really showed why they are the program and the team that they are. There aren’t many teams that could have done what they did that night and I was extremely impressed,” Stallings said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky next plays at Vanderbilt Saturday. Several times this season Vandy coach Kevin Stallings has complained about UKâ€ˆnot having games on Thursday and Saturday like most SEC teams have had to face this season and also getting to play teams on Saturday that did have a Thursday game and only two days to prepare for the more rested Wildcats.
After Tuesdayâ€™s win, Calipari was asked about guarding Floridaâ€™s 3-point shots and took a playful jab at Stallings.
â€œWe only had one day obviously to prepare for it. That’s the problem with playing Saturday/Tuesday, you only have one day to prepare,â€ Calipari smiled and said. â€œIt’s awful. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. But we’ll deal with it.â€
Later the UK coach was asked if he worried how his team might respond at Vanderbilt coming off a 20-point win over a top 10 team.
â€œWe start three freshmen and two sophomores, and Kyle Wiltjer is a freshman off the bench, and a senior. Everything is new to us. I have no idea. That’s why you want to go see. Let’s find out. Let’s see,â€ Calipari said. â€œThey’ll have tomorrow off.Â We’ll practice Thursday. We’ll practice Friday. Then we go to Vandy.
â€œWe play a 9 oâ€™clock game. Is it (ESPN) GameDay up there?Â It’s nuts, doesn’t need to be GameDay. I heard they changed the benches to the sides. Did they? They didn’t. See, that’s a problem.â€