UK defeated Vanderbilt in Nashville on Tuesday, 87-81. | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

Vanderbilt basketball games always take on a sort of other-worldly aura for Kentucky.

Can it really be that simply putting the teams’ benches at the endlines rather than on the sides of the court completely disorients the visitors?

To say nothing of the howling crowds. This is the “Harvard of the South,” for goodness sake. What does it say about the South to see all these high-SAT undergrads pounding the court and yelling blood-curdling oaths at the refs and the opponents?

Those shouts of “overrated!” at Malik Monk as he stepped to the free throw line at the end of the game — and swished both shots — smacked of something you’d hear from Duke fans. Come to think of it, another high-SAT Southern school. (What does that say about the future of the country? That’s a question for another post.)

In any case, it was a somewhat surreal evening. Normally plodding, disciplined Vandy tried to run with Kentucky. On the Cats’ side, Monk struggled with his shots again. And early foul troubles for both him and De’Aaron Fox led to some of John Calipari’s most inventive lineup arrangements.

The good news was that Isaiah Briscoe stayed in the game. The sophomore guard is an odd fit with his two young backcourt partners. They race and run and leap. He plods along, like the unathletic kid in school who tries to keep up with his friends but is always a step or two behind. You almost expect to see Briscoe throw up his hands and shout, “Come on, wait for me, guys!”

Isaiah Briscoe | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

In that sense, it’s a bit like last year, when Briscoe also played alongside two free spirits who seemed to be having their own game. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray ran up and down the court, finding inventive ways to score, while Briscoe labored alongside. But there was a special bond between Ulis and Briscoe, which made Ulis remember to include his friend in the fun, as if his mother had told him, before he left the house, “Now, Tyler, don’t forget Isaiah’s with you.”

The difference this year is that Briscoe is the savvy older kid, the one with all the smart, well-thought-out plans — the leader of his merry bunch.

So when Monk and Fox went to the bench on Tuesday – and Briscoe found himself playing alongside Dominique Wilkins, Isaac Humphries, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder — he began doing what he does best: slowing down the game, watching the defense align itself, and then finding that smallest of lanes open up for him. With an extraordinary craft for advancing his dribble in the crowd, he’s suddenly to the hoop and up for two off the glass. Or drawing fouls and getting the other teams’ big men in foul trouble, which then opens up the defense for Bam Adebayo.

It’s really something to watch Briscoe make the court his own — it’s hugely important to Kentucky’s plans for an extended post-season run, even as everyone talks about that breathless freshman pair of guards.

Not that Monk and Fox took the night off. Fox, playing only half the game, scored 22 points in 25 minutes. And all Kentucky-watchers know Fox’s game is not Monk’s game. Monk astounds with his ability to shoot. Fox has a sweet, soft pull-up jumper, but his real game is racing down the court and athletically getting to the basket before the other team can adjust.

The disparate games of the three Kentucky guards always seem to come together when it matters, and all that proved useful when Vanderbilt, refusing to go away, trailed by only three with three minutes to go. Then Briscoe made a couple layups to keep the Commodores at bay. But only until Riley LaChance — one of those good-shooting Vandy guards that irritate Kentucky — hit a three to close the margin to a single point, with a minute and a half left. That’s when Monk, who had struggled all game, made six of Kentucky’s final eight points.

And so the Cats, who had won their first three SEC games by an average of 30 points, showed they could win a close one on the road, 87-81.

Coach Calipari and Isaiah Briscoe | Photo courtesy of UK Athletics

Cal had his usual opportunity to shake his head in the post-game press conference and lament how the discipline and focus of his young team breaks down. They don’t cut off the straight-line drives. They don’t talk on defense. They don’t fight through picks. They commit foolish fouls. They don’t battle for 50-50 balls. They don’t block out on the boards. They try for highlight reel dunks when a more simple layup is worth the same number of points. (That’s looking at you, Monk!)

Cal’s eyes are always on early April anyway. And one shouldn’t minimize the problems of this team: Its depth, defense, rebounding and half-court game all are questionable.

But he had to be happy with his team’s ability to withstand pressure against a well-coached team. He had to be happy that Bam hit eight of 10 free throws. He had to be happy with the rebounding of his guards.

And he had to be happy that, in the worst of circumstances, he can put the ball in Briscoe’s hands and say, “Don’t worry about the other kids. You just go play the way you can. They won’t make fun of you.”

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Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.