Freije will test UK's defense

January 08, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky's success is no surprise to Vanderbilt standout Matt Freije.

"They showed a lot of other teams how to play basketball last year. Basketball is not an individual sport, it's a team sport where you need five guys working together and they have that again this year," said Freije.

Freije and the 20th-ranked Commodores will play at Kentucky Saturday night when the No. 7 Wildcats open Southeastern Conference play. Vanderbilt has never won a game in Rupp Arena and lost 106-44 to the Cats in their last game in Rupp at the end of last season.

"We are a lot more optimistic this year," Freije said earlier this week. "We are young, but we are more experienced. We are a lot more mature and physically stronger.


"But Kentucky is still Kentucky. Their defense was the best in the nation last year. It's the same this year. Their defense leads to a lot of their offense. They get rebounds and steals and just take off. They are good offensively, but the defense is what is really good."

Still, Freije figures to test Kentucky's defense. The 6-9 senior was considered the SEC's top player by most college basketball analysts coming into the season and has lived up to his billing.

He's averaging 19.1 points per game and shooting 50.4 percent overall and 41.5 percent from 3-point range. He's pulling off 5.8 rebounds per game and also averages one steal and one blocked shot per game.

"He's probably the best player I've seen play from both a mental and physical standpoint," Vanderbilt guard Russell Lakey said. "He plays every game as hard as he can. Sometimes he just puts the team on his back. If we just help him some, then he can really show what he can do.

"When he's hot, you just want to feed him the ball. He can make it look so easy offensively. He's an inside-outside guy. He can do it off the dribble or the catch. He's the most versatile player I've ever played with. That's why he is so good."

Freije downplays his matchup with either Erik Daniels or Chuck Hayes in Saturday's game. He respects the way both play and says they more than hold their own in the middle.

"They both are physical players and they both rebound. When they get a rebound, they run. They are just good players," Freije said. "Chuck is a little shorter than most inside players, but he's stocky and strong. Daniels plays physical and he's sneaky quick. You take your eye off him for a second and he's gone."

Stallings expects even more from Freije in SEC play

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings expects Freije to make even more significant contributions for the Commodores during league play.

"Matt has played very well, but he's not played his best yet," Stallings said. "He's only playing 22-23 minutes a game, which has been good because he's not wore out. But he will play a lot more in league play."

The Commodores know Kentucky (8-1) may not have as much depth as in past years this season. However, they also know UK relies on more than talent to win.

"UK players know their roles better than anyone else," Lakey, a senior, said. "Sometimes I think other teams may have more talent, but Kentucky players know their roles and there is no jealousy between them. They know if they just play their role, they are going to win.

"That attitude just passes down from the coach to the players, but the players also have to be willing to listen. Kentucky has one of the best coaches, if not the best coach, in America in Tubby Smith. He communicates best with his players and he gets players with good attitudes. They have the right formula for success."

Stallings thinks his team's success this year can also be traced to better overall chemistry.

"I think we have had chemistry killers on our team and now we don't have any of those. I think it has made a huge difference," Stallings said. "I also think our team has really taken it upon themselves to be a close team and really enjoy each other. They are a fun team to coach because of how much they like each other."

Winning at Kentucky certainly would be fun for Vanderbilt, especially after losing by 62 points last year in Rupp. UK also turned its season around when it outscored the Commodores 46-16 in the second half in Nashville in its third SEC game last season.

"Hopefully Kentucky won't play as well against us this year," Freije said. "But they have a storybook program and you know they are always good. We can't be intimidated by last year. We just have to do the best we can and hope that is a lot better than last year."

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