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Offensive Execution Breaks Kentucky’s Rocky Top Drought

© Randy Sartin | USATSI

© Randy Sartin | USATSI

Ever since Rick Barnes took over at Tennessee, playing at Thompson-Boling Arena has been a nightmare for Kentucky. The Wildcats blew double-digit leads in the first three meetings and were rocked last March as they were 0-4 there the last four contests. Entering yesterday, Rick Barnes owned a 6-4 record against Kentucky including last year’s crushing loss to the Vols in the SEC Tournament.

Despite all of that recent history, Kentucky came out and handled their business on Saturday afternoon in Knoxville. Behind one of their best offensive games of the season against a good defense, UK earned a double-digit victory where they were in control for the entire 40 minutes. With eight games to play, there is now a three-way tie for first place in the SEC.

Offense

Kentucky scored 77 points in in 64 possessions posting 1.20 points per trip. It was their highest efficiency number posted against a power conference team this season and they did it with excellent shot making. The Wildcats shot 55.6 percent from two, 50 percent from three and 88 percent from the free throw line. If it wasn’t for the 14 turnovers the number could have been even higher.

Immanuel Quickley paced the offense with 18 points and the sophomore guard currently leads the SEC in offensive rating. He has scored in double-digits in 11 consecutive games and is doing a great job getting to the free throw line. There he is shooting 92 percent on over 100 attempts. Against Tennessee, he was effective from every level to lead UK in scoring.

Once again, Nick Richards proves to be a very difficult matchup for just about everyone on UK’s schedule. The junior big posted 15 points on five field goal attempts as he ranks second behind Immanuel Quickley in offensive rating in the SEC. He is now shooting 67 percent from the field and 75 percent at the line. He has been UK’s most efficient player all season and that continues to be the case. When he plays well, Kentucky is one of the best teams in college basketball.

With Ashton Hagans struggling (2 of 8 from the field, 5 turnovers), Tyrese Maxey stepped up and ran some point for the offense. With the the team struggling in the first half, the freshman made some shots to help extend the lead on his way to 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting from two-point range.

The story of the game was the production UK got off the bench. Rookies Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang played a career-high in minutes thanks to some foul trouble and they delivered when they were on the floor. Juzang hit all three of his treys on his way to scoring 13 points while Brooks gave some quality minutes at the four that resulted in two made baskets and three offensive rebounds. UK’s bench outscored Tennessee’s 17-3 and that was the difference in the game.

Defense

Kentucky allowed 64 points in 64 possessions allowing one point per trip. UK now ranks third in the SEC in defensive efficiency as they slowly try to improve on that end of the floor. Tennessee shot just 41.4 percent from two, 26.9 percent from three as UK’s first shot defense continues to be very good. However, the Vols were able to do damage with free throws and offensive rebounds.

Tennessee’s 12 offensive rebounds turned into 19 second chance points and their 19 free throw makes gave the offense 38 of their 64 points. Take these numbers down just a tad and this would have been one of Kentucky’s best defensive performances of the season. Forcing live ball turnovers is starting to happen more frequently after Kentucky recorded six steals.

The Wildcats were able to limit the Vols to just 18 points in the paint and not a single bucket in transition. Tennessee labors to score and Kentucky was able to eliminate a lot of easy buckets that they frequently rely on. No UT player shot 50 percent in the game and they found it very difficult to work against UK’s first shot defense. This is what you should expect when facing an offense that ranks 124th in offensive efficiency.

Road Warriors

To put it bluntly, Kentucky’s schedule was ridiculous the season. When it was released, the major focus was on the fact that the Wildcats were playing at 11:00pm local time against Utah on a Wednesday night in Las Vegas and that the annual rivalry game with Louisville was somehow inexplicably scheduled at the same time as the College Football Playoff. However, the worst part could’ve been the four consecutive Saturdays with road games.

The Wildcats had to go to Arkansas, Texas Tech, Auburn and Tennessee and came away from the stretch with a 3-1 record. Each victory resulted in a Quad 1 win and the success has given UK a chance to win the SEC regular season title for the first time since 2017. Kentucky had a chance to win in each outing and if it wasn’t for some bad late game execution on the Plains they could’ve ran the table.

UK is 4-2 in true road games this season and has honestly played some of their best basketball away from Rupp Arena. They still have a few more road trips left including a monster game next Tuesday night in Baton Rouge, but they have proven to be a very good road team to this point. This is something that has not always been a guarantee during the John Calipari era.

Outlook

Thompson-Boling Arena has been a house of horrors for Kentucky with the Wildcats blowing double-digit leads in three of their last four losses there. After consecutive Santiago Vescovi threes to cut UK’s lead to four with just over nine minutes to play, it appeared that UK was going to be headed down that same road. However, the Wildcats had other plans.

Kentucky closed the game on a 26-17 run and slowly squeezed the life out of Tennessee’s comeback attempt. UK showed some really good poise and it helps when you get consistent bench production. The shooting of Johnny Juzang makes the offense much harder to defend and those three-point makes likely opened up the paint for Nick Richards and driving lanes for UK’s guards. The result was a win in Knoxville for the first time since 2015 and a chance to close the season really strong.

After the tough loss to Auburn, Kentucky responded with two very well played games in wins over both Mississippi State and Tennessee. In games against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss this week they will be around a double-digit favorite in each outing. There is the monster road trip to LSU, but there’s no hiding from the fact that Kentucky has a very good opportunity to close the season strong.

UK desperately needs to get Ashton Hagans out of the current funk he finds himself in, but both Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley are doing a good job picking up the slack when he’s struggling. Nick Richards remains an absolute force while the four spot can still disappear at times. Getting consistent bench production from Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang would obviously help cover a lot of holes, but the biggest thing to work on is guarding without fouling.

In road games, Kentucky is having a very difficult time defending without hearing whistles and it is taking away from what has been some good defense played. At the end of the first half against Tennessee, Kentucky went to a 2-3 zone and it allowed the Wildcats to get some stops and extend their lead to seven at the break. Rebounding is likely always going to be an issue due to this team’s personnel, but not fouling should get better. Playing games on  neutral floors in March will likely make a big difference.

On to Vanderbilt.

Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR