NASHVILLE - It had been the toughest of weeks for the Vanderbilt athletic family long before No. 14 Kentucky's Big Blue Nation took over nearly half of the Commodores' once magical Memorial Gym for Saturday afternoon's Southeastern Conference basketball game.
Not only had Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings' team lost at Alabama on Tuesday after dismissing leading scorer Eric McClellan from the team for a violation of university academic policy and team rules, but popular football coach James Franklin bolted Saturday morning for Penn State.
Then the Wildcats defeated Vandy 71-62 to drop the basketball Commodores to 8-6 for the season and 0-2 within the SEC heading into Thursday's game against visiting Missouri.
"We played hard enough," Stallings said after watching freshman center Damian Jones lead all scorers with 18 points and tie UK forward Julius Randle for most rebounds with 11. "We didn't play well enough. They really dominated us on the boards. We got beat by a better team."
They certainly got beat by a taller team. Kentucky is believed to be the nation's longest squad with an average height of 79.4 inches, and that certainly helped the Cats outrebound Vanderbilt 41-28, including an 18-5 edge on the offensive glass. In addition to Randle, UK sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein drew the most praise from Stallings after finishing with 15 points, six rebounds, a block and two steals.
"There's always somebody you like to watch on the other team," he said. "[Cauley-Stein] plays hard, he's selfless, you don't have to run any plays for him, but he still ends up with a great stat line."
The 7-footer from Olathe, Kan., also earned postgame praise from CBS broadcaster Greg Anthony, who said, "I thought he was the key to the game."
The biggest key for every Commodores game going forward may be that Stallings is down to seven scholarship players after the dismissal of McClellan and a season-ending knee injury to junior center Josh Henderson in early December.
Without them, a team that rose to 7-3 on Dec. 21 with a 13-point win over Georgia Tech easily could finish with a second straight losing season after its SEC tournament title in March 2012.
The same should not happen to Kentucky (12-3, 2-0), which again is looking to make making a deep NCAA tournament run after losing in the opening round of the NIT a year ago. The Cats play Tuesday night at Arkansas, where they'll put their 15-point victory margin and No. 17 RPI mark on the line against the Razorbacks.
"We're starting to play really well as a team," Cauley-Stein said. "The last couple of days we're getting closer basketball-wise."
Kentucky coach John Calipari admitted his team is getting better after its fourth straight victory but quickly added, "We've still got a long way to go."
Just not so long or with as hard a road as the undermanned Commodores.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org