One of Tennessee’s biggest strengths is experience. With a plethora of upperclassmen, this Volunteers squad is practically a carbon copy of the one Kentucky faced three times last season, but with another year of growth and maturity.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at what happened in those three games to determine Kentucky’s best strategy for Saturday.
January 6: No. 23 Tennessee 76, No. 17 Kentucky 65 (Knoxville)
Several Kentucky players were battling the flu, PJ Washington went down with cramps, and the refs were terrible. Excuses aside, the Cats got whipped, with Kevin Knox turning in one of the worst games of his Kentucky career.
KEY FACTOR: PJ Washington exiting the game with cramps. Before going to the locker room with 12 minutes left, PJ had 13 points and was winning his matchup with Grant Williams. Once PJ was out, Williams took over, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the second half. Afterwards, Williams admitted that PJ was in his head.
“He shut me down in the first half,” Williams said. “I’ll give it to him. He was in my head a little bit. I think the cramps hurt their team a lot. Just the fact they were playing with so much confidence when he was in the game.”
QUOTES: “They out toughed us,” Caliapri said. “They just threw us around. It was embarrassing. As soon as we had PJ out of the game, we had no shot of winning…When PJ went down, they saw a wounded animal and went right at them. We were literally standing with cheerleaders on a bunch of shots. ”
February 6: No. 15 Tennessee 61, No. 24 Kentucky 59 (Lexington)
Costly turnovers by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander resulted in a clutch three by Lamont Turner with 26 seconds left and the game-winning dunk by Admiral Schofield with four seconds left, the latter a cruel twist of the knife in what was an epic collapse by Kentucky.
KEY FACTOR: There were plenty of reasons Kentucky lost — Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, and Hamidou Diallo didn’t play well — but what people will remember most is Calipari’s decision NOT to call a timeout to set up a play in the final seconds. As a result, chaos ensued and the Cats took an L at Rupp.
QUOTES: “I make mistakes at the end and cost them the game,” Calipari said. “But I should have called a timeout. I don’t ever like to in those situations, but this is a different team. This team is too young. They’re just too young to know that what’s there and if they get in trouble just call a timeout.”
March 11: Kentucky 77, No. 13 Tennessee 72 (SEC Championship, St. Louis)
Unlike his last meeting with the Vols, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shined, finishing with 29 points and SEC Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Similarly, Kevin Knox played much better, turning in 18 points, including three threes. Kentucky led by as many as 17 in the first half, but Admiral Schofield brought Tennessee back into it, leading a 15-3 run to bring the Vols within five at half. From there, it was a back and forth battle, but Shai’s free throws with 2.4 seconds left clinched the victory.
KEY FACTOR: Shai. After costing the Cats in the last game vs. Tennessee, Shai took over this time around, hitting clutch bucket after clutch bucket to drag Kentucky to the win.
Also big: three-point shooting. Kentucky was 7-16 (43.8 percent) from behind the arc vs. 3-14 (21.4 percent) in Rupp a month prior. And any discussion of this game is incomplete without the clip of Sacha Killeya-Jones’ dunk:
QUOTES: “I think right now he’s playing his best basketball because he’s one of our leaders,” Kevin Knox said of Shai. He knows he’s getting better with the decision-making. Late in the game, he made some huge plays, knocked down some free throws, and found people. He’s also doing it on the defensive end. He’s really good defensively, and he’s playing really well right now.”
So, what lessons did we learn from last season about this Tennessee team?
- PJ is capable of shutting Grant Williams down
- Can’t get bullied in the post (paging Reid Travis)
- Call the timeout if you need to, Cal
- Hit threes
- Strong guard play is key
- Random dunks by big men off the bench are good omens
We got this.