1. Mid-season international additions
The starting lineup for the Tennessee Volunteers consists of two players that weren’t even eligible at the start of the calendar year. Starting point guard Santiago Vescovi didn’t enroll at Tennessee until the second semester of this year, and Rick Barnes had hinted at the time that he probably wouldn’t even be eligible this season. The Montevideo, Uruguay native arrived on campus on December 28th and was cleared by the NCAA on January 3rd. Starting center Uros Plavsic transferred from Arizona State in May, and wasn’t ruled eligible until January 14th.
Vescovi has played in ten games, becoming the starting point guard very quickly. He’s averaging 10.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and a team-leading 3.7 assists. He’s one of the better shooters on the team, hitting 36.4% from three and 79.2% from the free throw line. Plavsic stands at 7’0″ and 240 pounds and has played in just seven games, recently joining the starting lineup for two games. The Cacak, Serbia native is averaging just 4.6 points and 1.4 rebounds a game in under 12 minutes, but has provided a much needed presence in the paint for the Volunteers.
2. Offensive struggles
Not having a set roster for the first two months of the season has definitely taken a toll on the offensive performance of Rick Barnes’ squad. Losing starting point guard and best player Lamonte Turner to a season ending surgery just 11 games into the year would be tough for any team to come back from, but Vescovi has done his best to make up for what was lost. Tennessee scores just 66.6 points per game this year, which ranks 12th out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference.
Part of the offensive struggle for Tennessee is that they play such a slow pace, ranking 288th in the country in possessions per game. A mix of a struggling offense and a low amount of possessions puts the Volunteers in the lower echelon in the SEC in nearly every stat. In the conference, the Vols rank 12th in field goals made per game, 13th in field goals attempted per game, 11th in three-point percentage, and 12th in overall field goal percentage. Tennessee does shoot well from the charity stripe as a team, hitting 74.9% for 5th in the SEC, but they just flat out don’t get to the line enough. Their 410 attempted free throws is second to last in the conference. Kentucky ranks second in the conference in attempted free throws at 534 total on the year.
3. Defensive advantages
On the flip side for Tennessee, their defensive abilities have been able to mask a lot of their offensive struggles. Like most Rick Barnes coached teams, the Vols excel on the defensive end and use their athleticism to their advantage at all times. Tennessee ranks 20th in the country and first in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up just 61.5 points per game. As a team, they rank 23rd in the field goal defense in the country, which is second only to Kentucky in the conference.
Tennessee’s 5.9 blocks per game leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks 7th in the country. Most notably is SEC shot blocking leader, junior Yves Pons. Despite being listed as guard and measuring in at just 6’6″, Pons is averaging 2.6 blocks per game, which is 20th in the country. Tennessee also has three players averaging more than 1.2 steals per game. For reference, Kentucky has just one player over 0.7 steals per game.
4. With and without Turner
I mentioned earlier that senior guard Lamonte Turner had to get season-ending elbow surgery just 11 games in to the season, as an existing injury become too much to bear. Turner was the best player on this Tennessee roster, averaging 12.3 points, 7.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. Before Turner was sidelined, Tennessee was sitting at 8-3 on the year, with losses to Florida State, Memphis, and Cincinnati.
Since losing Turner for the year, Tennessee has gone 5-6, bringing their overall record to 13-9 on the year and facing an uphill battle to make the NCAA Tournament. A year after having one of their best seasons ever, Tennessee is in desperate need of a quality win to add to the résumé late in the season. Tennessee won earlier this at Alabama, but was some clutch free-throw shooting that night away from having lost four straight games coming into the Kentucky game.
5. Not so friendly confines of Thompson-Boling
There’s no question that Kentucky has struggled over the last few years against Tennessee. Since the beginning of the 2015-16 season, Kentucky holds just a 4-6 record against the Volunteers. Tennessee had their best stretch in history, and it has showed in the record books. Most notably, Tennessee has beaten Kentucky four straight years at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
Going back a few more years, Kentucky has lost on five of their last six trips to Tennessee. The spread of today’s game puts Kentucky as a 2.5 point favorite, which came as a surprise to some who know how this game is typically played every year. However, others would say that Kentucky is due and to bet on the Cats. Head Coach Rick Barnes always has the Vols prepared for when the Cats come to town, and today will be no different.
Go Cats. Beat Volunteers.