Tonight marks the three week point since the Kentucky Wildcats traveled to Rocky Top as the #4 team in the country and got upset by the Tennessee Volunteers. Since then, both teams have won three of the next five games. That stretch of three wins and two losses sounds much better for a now 14-11 Volunteer squad, than it does for a Wildcat team that is now 20-5.
While Kentucky showed some improvement in the most recent win over Alabama on Saturday, Tennessee crumbled in crunch time as they fell to Georgia at home. Despite their 14-11 record, that Georgia team has really been playing solid lately. Remember, they were up on Kentucky for the majority of the game in Rupp Arena before falling in overtime.
The previous game against Tennessee showed some glaring weaknesses in the defensive strategy that Coach Cal was trying. It was the first game he tried the “double-team and trap every player in the post” mentality and to be quite honest, it was an utter disaster. I remember counting at one point during the game, and Tennessee had scored on 5 straight possessions when Kentucky had tried to trap the post player. And these weren’t tough, contested shots. The Vols were getting wide open looks almost every time down the floor. It was honestly baffling that Coach Cal or even a member of his staff, didn’t make any adjustments throughout the game.
Since then, both teams have had their ups and downs. One thing has remained constant, as head coach Rick Barnes has kept the same starting lineup. Let’s take a look at those starters and how they fared against the Cats three weeks ago. I’ll include a lot of what I included about the player the last time these teams faced off, but with some minor adjustments with how the player affected the previous game.
#3 Robert Hubbs III, Senior Guard, 6’5″
Robert Hubbs III has steadily improved each of his four years at Tennessee. After only seeing action in 12 games his freshman year, he started 36 games in his sophomore and junior seasons combined. This year he is the only player who has started all 25 games for the Vols.
The senior is the leading scorer for the Volunteers at 14.3 points per contest. He’s also adding 5 rebounds, good for second on the team, and 2 assists per game. Unlike most of the scoring guards the Cats have faced this season, Hubbs won’t be taking and making a ton of 3’s tonight. He’s only 3-22 from deep on the season, but he does shoot 84.7% from the free throw line.
Last game against Kentucky, Hubbs was as good as advertised for the Vols. He tied Malik Monk for the game high of 25 points on 9-14 shooting from the field and 7-10 from the charity stripe. He also chipped in 7 rebounds and 2 assists in his 36 minutes. The Cats’ defense let Hubbs go over his averages (at that point in the season), in every major statistical category. The defensive effort from the Kentucky will have to be better.
#2 Grant Williams, Freshman Forward, 6’5″
If Rick Barnes sticks with the starters he’s used in the past month and a half, then Grant Williams will be the second biggest player on the floor for the Volunteers at only 6’5″. Williams was a four-star recruit out of high school, but was listed at 6’7″ by major recruiting services. Tennessee’s official roster lists him at just 6’5″, but he’s still playing the power forward position for the Vols.
Williams is scoring 12.5 points per game, pulling down a team leading 5.5 rebounds per game, and blocking 2 shots a game which is good for 4th in the SEC. Williams may not take a ton of shots for the Vols but he does take high percentage shots. He’s shooting a team-leading 54% from the field on the season, largely due to the fact that he knows his game.
While Williams may be undersized from a height standpoint, he weighs 234 pounds, which gives him a similar build to Chuck Hayes when he played at UK. Grant Williams and Bam Adebayo facing off down in Knoxville was not the first time these guys had seen each other. These two big men were foes in multiple high school games in North Carolina. Both Williams and Adebayo had big nights in the first match up of the season. Williams finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocks, and 3 steals while Bam finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 7-8 at the free throw line. As it was last time, this should be a matchup that the Cats exploit early and often with Bam’s 4 inch and 26 pound size advantage in the paint.
#23 Jordan Bowden, Freshman Guard, 6’3″
Jordan Bowden is the second freshman starter for Rick Barnes lately. A three-star ranked recruit by 247sports, Bowden has started 24 of 25 games so far for the Vols this season. Bowden may end up being a steal of a recruit for Coach Barnes if he progresses over the next few years.
Bowden has made an immediate impact in his first season in the orange and white. He’s averaging 8.7 points, 3 rebounds, and is the team steals leader at 1 per game. He’s the biggest shooting threat in the starting lineup for the Volunteers. The freshman is hitting 32.3% of his 3s and 83% of his free throws on the year.
Bowden has been named the SEC Freshman of the Week once so far this season, and will probably match up with fellow winner of the award Malik Monk tonight. I look for Monk to have a big scoring night tonight, as he did in the first matchup. Monk finished with 25 points to lead the Cats, along with 4 assists and 3 rebounds, whereas Bowden finished with 5 points and 2 assists. The real problem with those stats is how many shots Monk had to take to get 25 points. Monk shot just 7-19 from the field and 3-13 from behind the arc, as Bowden’s defensive pressure kept him from getting wide open looks and caused Monk to force up tough shots.
#0 Jordan Bone, Freshman Guard, 6’1″
The third and final freshman starter for Rick Barnes is guard Jordan Bone. Bone’s brother, Josh, was a part of the Tennessee Elite 8 team back in 2010. Josh went on to play professionally overseas after graduating from Tennessee.
Bone has ben playing the true point for the Vols in the 13 games he’s started this season. He’s putting up 7.1 points and 1.9 rebounds, to go along with leading the team with 3.1 assists per game. He’s only played in 16 of 25 games this season, missing 9 games with a left foot injury.
In the game against the Wildcats, Bone finished with 2 points and 2 rebounds in 22 minutes, as strong bench play forced him to the bench for a large portion of the game. On the opposite side of the ball, De’Aaron Fox was able to use the weaker defensive guards to his advantage. Fox went for 17 points, 4 assists, 2 steals, and a block.
#11 Kyle Alexander, Sophomore Forward, 6’10”
Kyle Alexander has started 18 of the 25 games this season for Tennessee; however, he’s only playing about 15 minutes per game. This was similar to what he did in his freshman season, starting both games against Kentucky, but only combining to play 26 minutes in the two games.
The sophomore was high school teammates with Jamal Murray for two years at Orangeville Prep. Alexander is giving the Vols 3.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, as well as 1.1 blocks per game. He struggles shooting the free ones though, hitting only 45.9% of his free throws. Alexander only played 3 minutes in the last matchup with Kentucky, as forwards Lew Evans and Admiral Schofield each played over 20 minutes off the bench.
Schofield finished with 15 points and 7 rebounds, while Evans finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists. Compare that to the combined 6 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks from the combination of Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis. Coach Cal will for sure need more of his two forwards to win tonight’s game. While the rebounding numbers between the two are solid, there is no reason that Gabriel and Willis should ever combine for just 6 points in a combined 40 minutes of play.
Like I said, these two teams have followed similar paths since their last meeting in Tennessee. But tonight’s match up poses a much bigger beast for the Volunteers. Taking on Kentucky in conference play is one thing, but trying to beat them on their home floor is a whole other animal. Tonight is a big night for the Cats, because I’m already looking ahead to the Georgia game on Saturday. I know you’re supposed to take it one game at a time, but if the Cats come out hot and beat up on Tennessee tonight, then they’ll take a high level of confidence into Athens to take on the Bulldogs on Saturday. A big win tonight and Saturday could set Kentucky up for success into March. The end of the season is about which team has it going at the right time. Well, the third week of February starts tomorrow folks, so March Madness is right around the corner.
Go Cats. Beat Volunteers.