It’s the Game of the Century – welllllllll, maybe not quite. But even though Kentucky lost Tuesday to LSU, Saturday’s showdown with Tennessee remains massive. For the Wildcats, it is another chance to add a huge win to their resume, one to go along victories at Louisville, against North Carolina, and a season sweep of Mississippi State.
A win Saturday would also put Kentucky in line to reach all the goals they laid out before the season: To win the SEC, get a No. 1 seed and have a path to the Final Four through Louisville.
Of course to do that, Kentucky will have do something virtually no one else has been able to do this season: Knock off the Vols. Understand that Tennessee is every bit worthy of their current No. 1 ranking, as they sit at 23-1 overall and 11-0 in the SEC, with their only loss against Kansas, at a time when Kansas was at 100 percent. Since that loss, Tennessee has ripped off 19 straight wins. And what’s been especially impressive is that few were particularly close. The Vols have won their last six by double-figures.
So yeah, this game is huge and it won’t be easy for Kentucky to get the win – but when you’re as good as the Wildcats, it’s not impossible either.
What are the keys to a Kentucky victory? Here are six:
1. Can Ashton Hagans slow down Jordan Bone?
While it’d be easy to say “Kentucky’s No. 1 key is to slow down Grant Williams” that’s kind of approaching the problem the wrong way. You’re basically getting the right answer by asking the wrong question. Because ultimately you know what leads to so much of Williams success: Having a point guard who gets him the ball in a perfect position to score.
That point guard is Jordan Bone. And to his credit, Bone has quietly emerged into the most consistent point guard in the SEC. He is also the engine that drives the Vols’ bus, as the guy who plays the most minutes of anyone on the Vols roster (yes, more than Williams or Admiral Schofield) and has a sparkling 3.5-1 assist to turnover ratio. There is nothing more valuable in college basketball than a smart, veteran point guard who knows his role and does his job. And that is Bone for the Vols.
That’s also what makes Hagans’ play so important on Saturday.
It’s no secret that Hagans is one of the 2-3 best on-ball defenders in college basketball (if not the best) and Kentucky’s best hope of winning is to cut off the head of the snake – in other words, cut off Tennessee’s offense before they can get in rhythm. Can Hagans stay out of foul trouble and stay in Bone’s grill? Can he make it tough for Bone to get Tennessee into its offensive sets?
The best chance to beat Tennessee is to take them out of their rhythm and comfort zone. And Hagans is more than good enough to do that.
2. Kentucky needs to limit Tennessee’s three-point shooting
Again, because so much of the focus is on Williams and Schofield, what gets lost with Tennessee is that at most times they have five guys on the floor that can beat you at any given moment. It isn’t just the Vols two All-Americans, but also Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner who can get 20 if you don’t defend them.
And that’s especially true from beyond the three-point line. On the season, the Vols are shooting nearly 37 percent as a team with Schofield (40 percent), Bowden (39.5 percent) and Turner (37.5 percent) all hitting an insane number of threes.
That’s the bad news for Kentucky, but the good news is this: While three-point defense was once of this team’s biggest weaknesses it has now become a relative strength. The overall numbers don’t totally back it up (again, because Kentucky was so bad in the category to start the season) but the recent numbers do. In the Wildcats last four games, three of their opponents have shot below 30 percent from the three-point line. Even Tuesday’s loss to LSU wasn’t so much to do with the Tigers getting hot from the three-point line as other factors – LSU finished just 6 of 21 from behind the arc.
More than anything on the defensive end, limiting the three-point shot for Tennessee is key.
3. Get deep into Tennessee’s bench
Fun story. Late last summer I had Nevada coach Eric Musselman on the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast (by the way, if you haven’t been listening, this week’s guest is ESPN’s Sean Farnham – and he was awesome. Download here) and one of the topics we discussed was his team’s depth entering this season. I asked him if it was nice to have all those extra pieces and he told me something surprising. “No,” he said. “I’d rather have a shorter bench where everyone knows their role.”
Well, if there is one team that follows the “a short bench where everyone who knows their role is ideal” edict to a tee, it’s Tennessee. The Vols have six players who play 25 minutes or more this season, and basically take up big chunks of minutes. Two other players (Yves Pons and John Fulkerson) average between 10 and 12 minutes a piece. After that, basically no one sees the floor.
But even that eight-man rotation (the six who average 25+ minutes a game + Pons and Fulkerson) is deceiving. While Pons does play quite a bit because of his defensive presence (he’s 6’9 and a good defender) he brings next to nothing to the table offensively, averaging just three points per game. Fulkerson plays an “average” of 10 minutes per game on paper, but if you really dig deeper, most of those minutes came during blowouts in out of conference games. He has played 10 minutes or less in seven of Tennessee’s 11 SEC games.
Again, it’s Tennessee’s top six or bust. Meaning that the best thing that Kentucky can do is attack the Vols and try to get a few of their key guys in foul trouble. Do that, and the Vols have to insert either Pons or Fulkerson (or maybe both) into the lineup which makes them less versatile and less of a threat offensively.
Here’s a random prediction for you: If either Yves Pons or John Fulkerson plays more than 15 minutes on Saturday, Kentucky wins.
4. Get production from their own bench
It’s no secret that once Kentucky goes to its own bench, things get dicey. Quickley, E.J. Montgomery, Nick Richards and Jemarl Baker have all shown flashes at various points this season, but none has been terribly consistent.
The good thing is that it feels like on most nights, at least one of the bench guys does show up. While the stat sheet doesn’t show it, Quickley gave the Wildcats productive minutes against LSU in the place of the foul-prone Hagans, and Montgomery has had his moments as well, most notably with a double-double against South Carolina a few weeks ago.
The talent is there from all four guys off the bench. The issue is consistency.
I’m not quite sure who will step up on Kentucky’s bench. But if they can get good production from someone, it should help them get a victory.
5. Slow down Grant Williams to the best of your ability
Look, whether you’re a Kentucky fan or not (and I’m thinking that most people reading this article are) it’s indisputable how much value Williams brings to the floor. For most of the last two seasons, the guy is a walking double-double, someone who plants his butt in the paint, gets the ball and either gets a bucket or gets fouled. The fact that he’s a lethal free throw shooter (83 percent) and is now shooting three-pointers a bit better (he’s made nine this season) makes him that much more dangerous.
Therefore, it feels kind of dumb to say that Kentucky should try and “stop” Grant Williams. It probably ain’t happening.
But, with P.J. Washington and Reid Travis can you slow him down? I think so. And to me, that is one of the more interesting elements of this game.
While stylistically I thought LSU – with all those tall, long athletes – was a bad matchup for Kentucky, I actually think the Wildcats match up pretty well with Tennessee. Kentucky has the athletes on the perimeter to – at least in theory – slow down the Vols backcourt and Travis and Washington have the size to handle Williams down low. With all due respect to Williams, I’m not sure that he has seen anyone with the bulk to handle him in the paint since Tennessee played Kansas, when the Jayhawks had Udoka Azibuke. And that was the one game that Tennessee lost this season. Williams finished with a respectable 18 points and eight rebounds, but also fouled out.
Can Kentucky implement a similar game-plan in hopes of slowing down Williams? I think so. And Washington and Travis are key.
6. If you get Tennessee down – can you keep them there?
As you guys know, I pride myself on watching as much college hoops as anybody. And I will readily admit that it’s been a long time since I missed a Vols game. They’re just a really good basketball team and a really fun watch and so I try to catch them any time I can.
But as I’ve watched Tennessee more and more, I’ve also noticed something about them: It’s been a long time since they’ve really been challenged. Now sure, they were pushed to the limit early against Kansas and Gonzaga, but since SEC play started the Vols have basically been on cruise control. They are 11-0 in league play and have won nine of those games by double-digits. And in watching them it really does feel like at times they take their foot off the gas. I can’t tell you how many times over the past month they’ll 20-point lead, relax, and watch that lead get down to eight or 10. Then they’ll go on another run and crush the opponent into the ground.
So why do I bring this up?
It’s because I have genuine concerns over whether that’s sustainable on Saturday. Furthermore, what happens if they aren’t playing from ahead all game? What happens if they can’t build a massive lead? What happens if the game comes down to the final few possessions and they have to make plays or heck, if they fall behind and have to make up a lead?
The only time Tennessee has had to answer those questions in the last six weeks were when they played Alabama and at home and Vandy on the road. And I’ll tell you this: That is nothing compared to a hostile Rupp Arena against a Top 5 team in the country on a Saturday night.
So can Tennessee handle that adversity? Probably. But I’ve also seen Kentucky in crisis – at Auburn, at Florida, at Mississippi State, and just about every single time they delivered.
I do believe these two teams are evenly matched up, but at home, give me the Wildcats.