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Wildcats not looking past struggling Vanderbilt as they return to Southeastern Conference play Tuesday

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky won’t change its approach when it steps back into Southeastern Conference play Tuesday night at Vanderbilt.

The Wildcats (16-3, 5-1 SEC) carry a six-game winning streak into the contest and are coming off a 71-63 win over Kansas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge Saturday. Kentucky jumped one spot in the Associated Press Top 25 Monday, making the jump from eighth to seventh in the rankings.

Vanderbilt, which suffered an 86-55 loss to Oklahoma last weekend, is still searching for its first league victory. In their last conference encounter, the Commodores (9-10, 0-6) took top-ranked Tennessee down to the wire before dropping an 88-83 loss in overtime last Wednesday at Memorial Gymnasium.

Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson (3) and Reid Travis battle for a rebound against Kansas. The Wildcats take on Vanderbilt Tuesday night in Nashville. (Photo by Tammie Brown, Kentucky Today)

Kentucky guard Tyler Herro said the Wildcats aren’t looking past Vandy in the second meeting of the year between the two conference foes. Kentucky edged the Commodores 56-47 on Jan. 12 at Rupp Arena.

“(We’re) just coming in with the same mindset as we were playing a top-25 team,” Herro said. “They had Tennessee beat at home. If we don’t come to play, they can do the same thing to us. They’re capable of beating anybody, so just coming in with the right mindset and being ready to go.”

Immanuel Quickley added that playing away from home is “It’s always tough” and expects a fight from the Commodores.

“Every team wants to beat you,” he said. “We’ve just got to come out ready to play, play hard, play together, play smart. Vandy is going to come out. They’re going to be firing on all cylinders. As you saw last week, they almost got Tennessee. So, we’ve just got to be ready to come out and play hard.”

Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said he expects Vandy to be hungry despite a seven-game winning streak. The Commodores haven’t won since posting a 90-59 victory over UNC Asheville on New Year’s Eve.

“I just think they’ve had some unfortunate timing of bad plays that have happened, but I think that they are playing faster,” Payne said. “(Aaron) Nesmith is really playing well for them. The (Saben) Lee kid is playing well for them. They’re fighting. They’re not laying down for any team. They’re getting after it. They’re capable of beating anybody in this league.”

In its last outing, the Wildcats continued their upward surge on the defensive end of the court and has limited four of their past five opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field. The Jayhawks made just 36 percent of their shots from the field.

“We won that game based on defense,” Payne said. “I like being the fiery team opposed to the cool, calm, collected because sometimes that can be misconstrued into laziness, lackadaisical. I would want guys to be more amped to be more amped to play.”

Despite the obvious improvement on defense, Payne said the coaching staff isn’t completely satisfied.

“We’re not complacent as coaches with where we are defensively and we’ve made a big jump,” Payne said. “We have to be a swarming defensive team. We’re playing really well defensively, but do we have another 30, 40 percent left in us? I think so.”

Payne added the Wildcats still have breakdowns on the defensive end of the floor.

“I think if we can get Keldon Johnson off the ball to be alert and reactive … if we can get Ashton Hagans off the ball to be better, and if we get PJ (Washington) to be a little more consistent (we will be better),” he said. “There are lapses there defensively off the ball. If we can get five guys all in tune to guarding the ball and helping each other for 40 minutes, we’ve got a chance. We’ve got a real chance.”

In the first meeting between the two teams, Vandy’s zone gave the Wildcats problems, but Herro said Kentucky will be more equipped to succeed the second time around.

“We worked on it a lot,” Herro said. “We know Vandy’s a good team. They almost had Tennessee beat at home. It’s going to be a tough game going into their place. Just gotta come ready as we did the last three games, with that same focus and energy come in and hopefully get a good victory.”

Johnson Honored

Johnson was named SEC Freshman of the Week for the third time this year by the league office Monday.

Johnson averaged 12.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals in wins over Mississippi State and Kansas. He shot a team-best 52.9 percent from the field, shooting better than 50.0 percent in both games.

The freshman guard is Kentucky’s leading scorer and is averaging 14.6 points per game average. He’s also adding 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He’s scored in double figures in all but four games this season and is shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from 3-point range.

Gametracker: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Tuesday, 9 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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