Last year, John Jenkins added to the lore of the Vanderbilt-Kentucky series.
On Saturday, the junior guard hopes to continue a streak that started before he was born.
The Wildcats come into Memorial Gymnasium (8 p.m., ESPN) riding a 16-game winning streak and carrying the No. 1 ranking in the country. A Final Four team a year ago, Kentucky (24-1, 10-0 SEC) presents a daunting challenge for the Commodores, but recent history says otherwise. Vanderbilt (17-7, 6-3) has won its last four home games against No. 1 teams, starting with an upset of North Carolina on Dec. 5, 1987.
“It doesn’t mean nothing now. We’ve got to win this one,” said Jenkins, who was in the crowd when Vanderbilt upset top-ranked Florida in 2007. “This is what you live for. You play basketball for these types of games.”
Jenkins rose to the occasion last year when the Commodores knocked off then-No. 18 Kentucky at Memorial. While his prolific shooting skills weren’t an unknown to Vanderbilt fans or to Southeastern Conference opponents, he exploded on a national stage. The Station Camp product scorched the Wildcats for a career-high 32 points and a then-best six 3-pointers (he made seven in a game earlier this season).
It was Vanderbilt’s first 30-point game against Kentucky since Mike Rhodes scored 34 in 1980.
Jenkins hasn’t lost steam from that performance. He's scored at least 10 points in 57 consecutive games and has knocked down a 3-pointer in 45 straight. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder leads the nation with 3.9 3-pointers a game and tops the SEC with 19.7 points per game.
He has added another dimension as well, looking to drive and lay it in more.
Against Kentucky, though, he might just want to stick to shooting from the outside. That’s because the Wildcats have 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis in the paint. He leads the nation with 120 blocks — that’s 4.8 per game — and last week passed Shaquille O’Neal’s SEC freshman record of 115.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody like him,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Obviously Davis changes the game around the goal. He makes you think about other options. Trying to take it in front of him is not a very intelligent option most of the time.”
“He blocks everything down there,” Jenkins said. “So you’ve got to stop and maybe shoot a floater or just don’t drive all the way in there.”
Davis leads the Wildcats by averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds and is the headliner of another superb freshman class for third-year head coach John Calipari. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist averages 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds and Marquis Teague chips in 9.7 points and 4.6 assists a game.
“It is going to be a challenge at each position,” Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli said.
But Stallings believes Kentucky can pose problems with its defense.
The Wildcats rank first in the country in field-goal percentage defense (35.8 percent) and ninth in scoring defense (57.7 ppg).
“They are very, very, very, in my opinion, underrated defensively,” Stallings said. “The shot-blocking gets a ton of attention. But I don’t think they get enough credit for how good they are defensively. Davis can go out of a game and they’re still outstanding defensively.”
This game marks the 15th time that Vanderbilt has played Kentucky when the Wildcats hold the nation’s top ranking. The Commodores are 4-10 in those games, dropping their last two in Lexington in 1996 and 2010. Vanderbilt last beat a No. 1 Kentucky squad on Jan. 13, 1993, winning 101-86 at Memorial.
“It is the No. 1 team in the country. Why would you not be excited?” Ezeli said. “Those big games are why we are here.”