- David Helman, Reporter, RecruitingNation
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NEW ORLEANS -- Forty more minutes remain in the SEC season on this holiest of days: Selection Sunday.
Regardless of who wins today's championship game between Kentucky and Vanderbilt, both teams are assured of strong seeding and a bright outlook in the NCAA tournament. But the eventual champion, be it the Cats or Commodores, will have accomplished something pretty remarkable. With a win, Kentucky would cap an utterly dominant 19-0 blitz through the SEC en route to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats would likely claim the top spot even with a loss, but where's the pizzazz in that?
The Commodores are playing for their first championship since a 1993 SEC regular-season title, and their first tournament championship since the 1951 season. This is Vandy's first trip back to the final game since that season, 61 years ago. By comparison, a win today would give Kentucky its 28th tournament title.
Here are some thoughts on what to expect ahead of these teams' third meeting of the year.
Big names must show up: While reporters swarmed John Jenkins, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne after Vandy's semifinal win against Ole Miss, Jeffery Taylor sat off to the side and looked through his cell phone.
Few reporters bothered him, and he didn't share much in the excited vibe going through the Commodores' locker room.
The reason seems pretty obvious. Although they won their quarterfinal and semifinal matchups by 22 and 12, respectively, the Dores haven't looked quite like the hot-shooting team we're accustomed to seeing. They have come out to slow starts in both games, shooting 34 percent in the first half against the Bulldogs and 33 percent against Ole Miss.
Taylor's forgettable tournament (to this point) is a big part of that. The senior has just eight points through two games after averaging 16 per game for the season, and he's shooting 3-of-15 from the field. The Commodores also got past Ole Miss without seeing a single point from key forward Festus Ezeli.
That's not going to cut it against the Wildcats.
"In games against teams like the number one team in the country and maybe the best team in college basketball, if your marquee players don't play like marquee players, you might as well be spitting in the wind," said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings after the Ole Miss game.
Taylor, for his part, said confidence is key.
"If the ball doesn't go in, I think it hurts anybody," he said. "But I've been making shots all year, I've been playing really well all year. Two games isn't going to destroy my confidence."
Crunch time: Both of Kentucky's wins against the Commodores this season followed similar scripts. Vandy has been right there with the Cats in the dying minutes both times, but has faded. Two weeks ago in Lexington, the Dores trailed by as little as four with 2:42 to play. Kentucky went 3-of-3 from the field down the stretch and hit a bevy of free throws to hold on in a nine-point win.
A month ago in Nashville, Vandy actually led, 63-61, with four minutes left. The only problem is, the Commodores didn't score again, instead closing the game on a 0-of-9 cold streak in a six-point loss.
Vandy clearly has what it takes to keep pace. Is the third time the charm to finish strong?
Statement game: After a rocky, one-point performance in the first half against LSU, Anthony Davis has come on (surprise, surprise) to have a sterling showing at his first SEC tournament. Davis has posted double-doubles in both of Kentucky's games so far, highlighted by his 15 points and 12 boards on Saturday against Florida.
As good as he's been, he has yet to really take the lead in UK's two scrappy wins so far in this tournament, which says a lot about the caliber of season he has had. If he plays the way he did last time against Vanderbilt, there's almost no way to withstand the Wildcats. When the Commodores came to Rupp Arena on Feb. 25, Davis chalked up a career high of 28 points (10-of-11 shooting) to go with 11 boards and six blocks. Stallings put it succinctly when he said Davis "played like a dude."
If the freshman player of the year candidate has another big day, it's hard to envision anyone but Kentucky celebrating in the Big Easy.