Apologies in advance for the miserable orange color that is spattered throughout this post.
Last year, when the Kentucky Wildcats traveled to Knoxville to take on Tennessee, the game started exactly how John Calipari would’ve hoped. The Cats were running and gunning to an 18-point lead multiple times in the first half. But then the wheels fell off. Slowly but surely, the Volunteers took chunks out of the that 18 point lead to go into the half only down 6. Then the second half was all Vols as Tennessee outscored Kentucky by 13 in the final half. It is one of the worst losses of the John Calipari era at Kentucky, in that the Cats were up 18 at one point and gave up the game to go on to lose by 7 to a team that was 10-11 going into that night.
The second mathchup last year between the Cats and the Vols was housed in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena and the Cats took care of business, taking home the 10-point W behind 25 points and 5 rebounds from Derek Willis, as well as 28 points and 9 rebounds from Jamal Murray.
This year, Rick Barnes will host Kentucky in Knoxville again, and it is a similar situation. The Cats come in with a high ranking as the No. 4 team in the country, while the Volunteers enter tonight 10-9 on the season. Barnes has tinkered with the starting lineup this year, with 11 different players earning at least one start on the season. Let’s take a look at what the projected starters may be for tonight’s 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 19 games for the Vols.
The senior is the leading scorer for the Volunteers at 14.7 points per contest. He’s also adding 4.9 rebounds, good for second on the team, and 1.7 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 3-20 from deep on the season, but he does shoot 84.7% from the free throw line.
With De’Aaron Fox questionable for tonight’s game with his turned ankle, I think John Calipari has one of two options with who to start in his place. He could go with another guard in Dominique Hawkins to complete the Cats’ three guard lineup or he could add a forward to have a size advantage in Derek Willis. I think Hawkins starts tonight, making him the smallest of UK’s starters. I think Briscoe will defend Hubbs III from the get-go.
#2 Grant Williams, Freshman Forward, 6’5″
If Rick Barnes sticks with the starters he’s used in the past two weeks, 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 10.8 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 53% 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. They are both undersized big men who use their strong frame to carve out space and find success as a forward. How he defends the budding offensive game of Wenyen Gabriel will be an interesting matchup. Two completely different styles of play in the Gabriel-Williams matchup.
#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 18 of 19 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 8.3 points, 2.8 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 33% of his 3s and 85% 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, especially if De’Aaron Fox’s injury rules him out completely.
#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 7 games he’s started this season. He’s putting up 8 points and 1.2 rebounds, to go along with leading the team with 3 assists per game. He’s only played in 10 of 19 games this season, missing 9 games with a left foot injury.
Jordan Bone will probably match up with Dominque Hawkins, assuming he starts in place of De’Aaron Fox tonight. Hawkins’ defensive pressure could cause issues for the freshman guard, and same for Fox if he is able to suit up tonight.
#11 Kyle Alexander, Sophomore Forward, 6’10”
Kyle Alexander has started 12 of the 19 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 3.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, as well as 1.1 blocks per game. He struggles shooting the free ones though, hitting only 48% of his free throws.
For as tall as Alexander is, he is extremely skinny, which makes Bam Adebayo a matchup nightmare for Rick Barnes. For this reason, I could see Barnes using Alexander to defend Wenyen Gabriel, and moving Grant Williams to attempt to guard Bam. Barnes better have something up his sleeve because no one on this Tennessee can handle Bam in the post. Bam should have 20 and 12 at a minimum tonight.
I don’t want to speak too soon, because these UK freshman haven’t dealt with the rowdy Knoxville crowd before, De’Aaron Fox may sit out, and Tennessee pulled off the monster upset last year. However, there is absolutely nothing that points to the Volunteers being able to stick with the athletes that UK puts on the floor in tonight’s game. That is no knock on any of Rick Barnes’ players, but it is difficult for a ton of teams in the SEC to match up correctly with the Cats. The only thing I worry about in tonight’s game is the trap game theory. Hopefully, not too many of these young Wildcats will be looking ahead to Saturday’s big game against Kansas in Rupp.
Go Cats. Beat Vols.