No. 23-ranked Kentucky won’t be at full strength for its Southeastern Conference tournament opener on Friday night.
But the third-seeded Wildcats (21-10) enter their quarterfinal game against sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (19-13) after a performance that showed how well they can play while short-handed.
Point guards Sahvir Wheeler (ankle) and Cason Wallace (leg) were sidelined by injury and center Oscar Tshiebwe was limited by foul trouble, but Kentucky still had one of its better performances of the season in an 88-79 victory at Arkansas in the regular-season finale on Saturday.
“We have to understand how we’ve got to play, how we’ve got to fight, how we have to execute,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said.
Wheeler isn’t expected to play in the SEC tournament, but Wallace might return against the Commodores. Additionally, guard CJ Fredrick is still battling a cracked rib, though he played 15 minutes against Arkansas.
“They’re going to have to start practicing,” Calipari said of the injured players. “It’s not just, ‘I’m good to go Friday.’ You’ve got to get on the floor at some point and we’ll see.”
In the win against the Razorbacks, guard Antonio Reeves, who shared the SEC Sixth Man of the Year award with Alabama’s Jahvon Quinerly, scored a career-high 37 points.
“I just stuck with my role,” Reeves said. “That’s really what it was. I know what I can do. It was me just being aggressive and making shots.”
Tshiebwe, a first-team All-SEC selection, was limited to 26 minutes before fouling out but still managed his 46th career double-double with 12 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. Jacob Toppin added 21 points.
Freshman Adou Thiero played a season-high 24 minutes as the primary ball handler in the absence of Wheeler and Wallace.
“He played good,” Calipari said. “He missed some shots, but he’s not perfect.”
Kentucky hasn’t reached the SEC tournament championship game in five years.
As for the Commodores, Tyrin Lawrence scored 22 points to lead Vanderbilt to a 77-68 victory over 14th-seeded LSU in a second-round game Thursday. Jordan Wright had 15 points and 15 rebounds for the Commodores, who had lost to the Tigers 84-77 on Feb. 22.
On Thursday, Vanderbilt used a 12-0 run to take a 49-36 lead with 14 minutes to play and coasted the rest of the way. The Commodores have won four games in a row and nine of 10.
Ezra Manjon added 17 points, Jordan Wright had 15 and Paul Lewis 11.
Vanderbilt limited LSU to 33.3 percent shooting from the floor, including 26.1 percent on 3-pointers.
The Commodores and Kentucky split two games during the regular season, with the visiting team winning both times.
“We’re going to play our game,” Commodores coach Jerry Stackhouse told the SEC Network. “They play at a high level and they’re tough to play, but we feel we’re tough, too.”
Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 68-66 on March 1 in the second-to-last game of the regular season as Wright made a tie-breaking jumper from the lane with 2.6 seconds remaining. The Wildcats prevailed 69-53 on Jan. 24.
“We’ve just got to do what we do,” Lawrence said. “If we play that way we have a chance.”
–Field Level Media