By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON— Vanderbilt hasn’t had much success against Kentucky lately, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats will be taking the Commodores lightly Wednesday night.
The Commodores (8-11, 0-6) have struggled under first-year coach Jerry Stackhouse and have lost their first six Southeastern Conference games. The winless streak in the league currently stands at 24 games, but Vandy has shown signs of ending the skid. The Commodores took No. 17 Auburn to the wire before dropping an 83-79 setback earlier this month.
“Anything can happen,” Kentucky senior Nate Sestina said. “Any team can come into Rupp and shock us. We have to be prepared to play for 40 minutes. We’ve got to be able to hold leads and that’s something that we’ve been focusing on. We have to come ready to play and be focused for 40 minutes.”
Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans agreed with Sestina and pointed to the Wildcats’ 67-64 loss to Evansville as an example of what can happen at any given time on the court.
“They’re going to come in here and give us their best shot,” he said. “They’re all going to be ready going up against Kentucky because of the name (across our chest). We’ve just got to stay the course. We lost at Rupp (to Evansville) …. With a team like Vandy (coming in) it’s going to be a dog fight.”
The key, Sestina said, is for the Wildcats to stay focused for the entire game and not concentrate in Vandy’s struggles this season but added the Commodores are capable of pulling off an upset even though Vanderbilt has won just twice in 42 attempts at Rupp Arena.
“I know that teams that have struggled in conference play can always come back and shock people,” he said. “My freshman year (at Bucknell) we lost to a No. 8 seed in the conference tournament. This team can come in and shock us if we aren’t ready to play.”
Kentucky, ranked 13th in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, is coming off a 78-76 overtime win over Texas Tech in the Big 12/SEC Challenge has won six straight against Vandy and 11 of the last 13, including three consecutive regular-season sweeps in the series between the two league foes.
Like Sestina and Hagans, Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus said the Wildcats won’t be looking past successes on Wednesday night.
“I think our guys know now that every game is important to somebody else as well as it’s important to us,” Justus said. “I think we’re a group of individuals that are trying to become better every single day. (Wednesday) night just gives us an opportunity to go out and compete, play together and try to become the best version of ourselves individually as well as collectively, whether you are playing Texas Tech or whether you are playing Vanderbilt, or whoever else you are playing next. The most important day for us is the present day.”
Justus and the coaching staff will be looking for Wildcats to continue to build on the team’s recent success. Since dropping back-to-back games in Last Vegas, the only misstep was an 81-78 setback at South Carolina on Jan. 15 in Columbia.
“You look for individuals to continue to be competitive and that’s something that when you have young people, every game that you step out there, it’s a competition,” Justus said. “… each day that we step on the court, you’re looking for individuals to rise up, to compete a little bit more and accept the challenge, whether it be from coach (John Calipari) or from Kenny (Payne), Tony (Barbee), myself or a teammate. Every day we look for improvement. By and large, we are starting to do that.”
Sestina agreed and doesn’t think the Wildcats are looking ahead to Saturday’s showdown at Auburn.
“I think everybody is locked in and has really bought into what we’re trying to do here and we’re good (to go),” he said.
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Gametracker: Vanderbilt at Kentucky, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.