With just three games remaining in the regular season, Kentucky is still in the mix for an SEC regular season title. It would be the sixth in a decade under John Calipari. To get there they likely need to pickup one of the biggest road wins in recent program history.
Tennessee will walk into Thompson-Boling Arena this afternoon with a 25-3 record and a 24-game home winning streak. Following the blowout loss to Kentucky on February 16th, the Vols are 2-1 with an overtime loss at LSU and and a last second victory at Ole Miss. With a crazy crowd ready to pull them to victory, the Vols will be hungry for a much needed win to help them claim consecutive SEC championships for the first time in program history.
Nuts and Bolts
The Vols entered this season with some very lofty expectations and they have not disappointed. Behind All-American caliber play from junior forward Grant Williams, Tennessee has spent the entire season in top 7 of the AP Poll with multiple weeks spent at the No. 1 spot. It’s been a remarkable run, but at the end of the day this team will be judged on what they do in March.
Tennessee has consistently been one of the best programs in the SEC and they have the hardware to prove it. The Vols have 71 wins all-time against Kentucky, 10 conference championships, and four SEC Tournament titles. Multiple coaches have taken this program to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but there is still a white whale for the program. Tennessee has never made it to the Final Four.
The Vols have just a 1-6 record in the Sweet 16 with the only victory occurring in 2010. That year Bruce Pearl’s Vols upset Ohio State in St. Louis before falling to Michigan State by one-point in the regional final. The Vols now have their best team in quite some time in the fourth season of the Rick Barnes era. Barnes, who has only been to one Final Four in 32 seasons as a head coach, will be looking to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. A lot of pressure will be riding on this experienced squad this month.
This season, the Vols have been powered by their offense and that is shown by their No. 3 national ranking in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. Tennessee doesn’t shoot a lot of threes, but they slice up defenses with execution in the halfcourt. Grant Williams is nearly unstoppable in the high post while Tennessee uses motions and plenty of screens to get Admiral Schofield a ton of mid-range and three-point looks. Jordan Bone is one of the most athletic point guards in the country while UT has solid role players in Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bowden, and Lamonte Turner. This is one of the best basketball teams in the country.
Today will be the 227th meeting between the two SEC programs with Kentucky owning a 155-71 overall lead. Since the arrival of Rick Barnes in Knoxville, this has been a really fun rivalry. The Vols are 4-4 against Kentucky since 2016 with a 3-0 mark on Rocky Top. John Calipari is currently 13-6 against Tennessee with a 4-5 record in Knoxville.
Out in the desert, Tennessee is a 3-point favorite with a total of 141. That’s a projected final score of 72-69. On the season, Kentucky is 15-12-1 against the spread while Tennessee is 14-12-1. Since the meeting between the two programs on February 16th, both teams have been a bit of a funk from a spread perspective. UK is 1-2 since that outing while the Vols haven’t covered in their last five games. The under is 9-2 in Kentucky’s last 11 games.
There’s no denying that Tennessee runs their offense through Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, but what is going to determine if this team succeeds this month will be the play on the perimeter. The Vols have a veteran three-man group who have played a lot of basketball together.
Jordan Bone is likely heading toward second team All-SEC honors at the end of the season and it’s easy to make the case that he’s been the second best point guard in the conference outside of LSU’s Tremont Waters. The Nashville native leads the team in minutes and is putting 13.1 points to go along with 6.2 assists per outing. The 6-foot-3 point is shooting over 40 percent from deep in SEC play and poured in 19 points on 13 field goal attempts in the last meeting with Kentucky. He has an excellent pull-up game.
Bone has great speed and has been compared to former consensus All-American T.J. Ford who led Rick Barnes to his only Final Four in 2003. The Vols don’t run often, but when they do it’s done by Bone pushing the pace. You could make a case that he is Tennessee’s most important player.
Next to Bone in the starting lineup is redshirt junior Lamonte Turner who is one of five Tennessee players that is putting up double figures in the scoring department. In more of a reserve role, the Alabama native has an excellent assist rate in addition to being a dependable perimeter shooter. Turner struggled mightily against Kentucky in the first meeting, but is a guy that moves the ball and helps space the floor with his shooting ability.
In wing Jordan Bowden, Tennessee has a bench player that can come in and provide instant offense. The only problem is that the junior has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks.
For an 11-game run that coincided with SEC play beginning, Bowden was putting up 15.4 points per game off the pine while shooting 44.4 percent from three. In the last two-plus weeks, Bowden is only chipping in 3.8 points per game on a 20.8 percent shooting clip with zero made treys. For Tennessee to reach a Final Four, they need this impact scorer to snap out of this funk and play at a high level.
The Vols don’t have much backcourt depth and that is a concern with postseason play quickly arriving. Tennessee is very dependent on these three guards and if a couple of these guys do not play well on a nightly basis the Vols could be ripe for an upset.
The SEC Player of the Year race is winding down and Grant Williams appears to still be in the lead. The bruising junior forward is averaging 18.3 points per game in league play on a 54.6 percent shooting clip. Williams is one of the best players in the country at drawing fouls and that is shown by his 7.6 free throw attempts per game. Williams is a great passer (94 assists), solid rim protector (41 blocks), and a quality rebounder (7.6 per game). He’s one of the best players in college basketball.
Williams gets a lot of the attention, but senior Admiral Schofield should not be slept on. Rick Barnes uses the undersized 6-foot-6 forward in some unique ways. Tennessee will utilize Schofield similar to a shooting guard by running him around a series of screens to get him mid-range or three-point looks. He leads this squad in shot attempts (75 more than Grant Williams) and three-pointers made (52). He is a volume shooter, but remains very efficient shooting with shooting splits of .483/.402/.741.
Next to Schofield and Williams in the starting lineup is senior Kyle Alexander. The Canadian is your typical defensive minded five-man. The near seven-footer leads the team in blocks and is an excellent offensive rebounder. Sophomores John Fulkerson and Yves Pons are used in limited roles off the bench. Fulkerson brings offensive rebounding to the table while Pons is one of the team’s best athletes.
Keys to Victory
- With Reid Travis, UK matches up very well with Tennessee. Without him, it’s going to be interesting to see how John Calipari schemes to slow down this excellent UT offense. Grant Williams has scored on just about everyone he’s played against, but when paired up against the length of LSU he struggled a bit (5-for-14 from the floor). With EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards gobbling up the minutes, their length could give Williams issues. However, Williams is great at drawing contact and getting to the line. Both Montgomery and Richards struggle to guard without fouling. Whoever wins this seesaw battle is going to have an excellent advantage. The last thing UK wants is to use PJ Washington as a primary defender against Williams.
- Tyler “I’m a bucket” Herro has been a road warrior all season and in recent weeks he’s been on an absolute tear. The Wisconsin native is putting up 16.6 points, 6.6 boards, and is shooting 51.4 percent from three on 37 in attempts in the last eight games. Herro is emerging into a big time college basketball player and Kentucky will need him to play big to leave Knoxville victorious. After dropping 23 and 5, Tennessee’s defense will be focused on PJ Washington. Expect plenty of double teams. With some good ball movement, shot attempts should be there for Herro.
- On the glass, the Vols have been mediocre on the defensive end while Kentucky has been outstanding on the offensive boards. Both Montgomery and Richards are excellent offensive rebounders. In the first meeting, UK was able to scoop up 12 offensive rebounds. Getting double-digits again will be very important.
- It’s going to be really hard for Kentucky to slow down both Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. UT’s best two players have gotten their numbers consistently against the best competition they’ve faced this season. The key for UK will be to make sure the supporting cast does not beat them. From a scoring standpoint this falls to Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner. Both are effective three-point shooters who can make plays off the bounce. UK cannot afford for an unexpected player to go off for 20-plus points.