The Cats finally dropped a game to end their 10-game winning streak and tonight they’ll be playing in their biggest SEC game in over a decade. The Vols sit at 23-1 this season with an unblemished record in SEC. Tennessee has now held the top spot in the AP Poll in four consecutive weeks. They will now be looking to become the first SEC program during the Calipari era to win in consecutive years in Lexington.
College GameDay at Memorial Coliseum was a unique and awkward scene and now all eyes will be locked onto Rupp Arena during the primetime slot. This has a chance to go down as one of the most important games of the college basketball season. We’ll see if UK can bounce back strong after blowing a nine-point second half lead against LSU on Tuesday.
Nuts and Bolts
There’s no denying it, Tennessee has consistently been one of the best basketball programs in the history of the SEC. The Volunteers have won 10 conference titles and this year they’ll be looking to repeat for the first time in school history. Rick Barnes is quickly becoming a legend in Knoxville.
The 64-year-old head coach has been around for a very long time. The Hickory, North Carolina native first became a head coach in 1987 and since then he has been in college basketball sideline each season. The head coach has spent time running programs at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas, and Tennessee. This season in Knoxville has been the best year of his coaching career.
Behind a team full of upperclassmen that has zero freshmen contributors, the Vols are playing excellent basketball. Tennessee’s only defeat occurred on a neutral court to a full strength Kansas squad in OT on a November Friday night. Since that loss in Barclays Center, the Big Orange have reeled off 19 consecutive victories with only two of them being by less than double-digits. Rick Barnes is currently the heavy favorite to be the national coach of the year.
This Tennessee team is absolutely dominant on the offensive end. UT does not have a weak link as shown by their national ranking of second in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Everything starts with Grant Williams in the post or the top of the key, but Barnes has constructed the roster to have the near perfect surrounding pieces. Tennessee has two combo guards who run point and can be effective spot-up shooters. Admiral Schofield can play the wing or be a stretch four. Kyle Alexander gives the Vols size and provides excellent offensive rebounding. Add in a potential dynamic wing scorer and a few glue guys and you have an excellent college basketball team.
Tonight will be the 226th meeting between the two schools and no program has beaten or lost to the Wildcats more than the Volunteers. UK leads the all-time series by a count of 154-71. Since arriving in Lexington, Rick Barnes has beaten the Wildcats at least once each season. Overall, Barnes is 4-3 against Kentucky since arriving on Rocky Top. John Calipari and Barnes have met a few times. Cal’s 2008 Memphis team defeated Barnes’ Texas team in the Elite Eight. That was the last time Barnes made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. In 2014-15, Barnes brought his last Texas team to Rupp Arena and lost by a count of 63-51. Overall, John Calipari is 12-6 against the Vols with a 7-1 record at Rupp Arena.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 4-point favorite with a total of 145.5. That’s a projected final score around 74.5-70.5. On the season, Kentucky is 13-10-1 against the spread while Tennessee is 14-8-1. In SEC play, the Wildcats are 6-4-1 against the number while the Volunteers are 7-4. In UK’s last 10 games, the under is 8-2. This will only be Tennessee’s third game as an underdog this season. Against projected NCAA Tournament teams, Kentucky is 7-4 against the spread while Tennessee is 2-2.
Tennessee is a feed the post team at nearly all times, but that’s not due to lack of options on the perimeter. Yes, the Vols do pound the paint but they have some very intriguing pieces at the guard spots. In junior point guard Jordan Bone, Tennessee has their best pro prospect.
The Nashville native is shooting nearly 40 percent from three in SEC play in addition to being a very effective two-point scorer. The 6-foot-3 guard has dished out at least five assists in every conference game this season. He leads the team in minutes and has reached double-digits scoring in seven of the last eight games. He’s about as steady as they come at the point guard spot.
Next to Bone is another very experience guard in Lamonte Turner. The redshirt junior from Alabama missed some games due to injury earlier in the season, but the Vols are very happy to have him back in the lineup. Turner can play the point if needed, but he’s an integral piece due to the floor spacing he can provide. The 6-foot-2 guard is shooting 37.5 percent from behind the arc in addition to shooting 63.6 percent from two. He’s very efficient and is one of five players averaging more than 11 points per game.
On the wing, Jordan Bowden is a 6-foot-5 guard who provides this team with a microwave scoring ability. The Sixth Man of the Year candidate in the SEC provides great versatility to the offensive attack. The Knoxville, Tennessee native is putting up over 11 points per game on shooting splits of .468/.395/.903. The perimeter player might be the team’s best outside shooter and is one of four players in the rotation that is shooting over 80 percent at the free throw line. This lineup has a lot of weapons.
Zion Williamson is the runaway national player of the year candidate. Dedric Lawson is one of the most skilled bigs in all of college basketball. Kentucky has faced both with mixed success, but Tennessee’s Grant Williams will be a whole other challenge.
In five career games against UK, Williams is putting up 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds but that doesn’t tell the whole story. This year the potential first team All-American is putting up 19 and 7 in addition to being a very good rim protector. The Charlotte native is shooting 57.9 percent from the field and is a plus-80 percent free throw shooter. Williams has 107 free throw shots in just 11 SEC games and by himself can foul out an opposing frontcourt. In addition to his scoring, Williams is an excellent passer out of double teams and a solid rebounder at both ends. He’s a brute force that has a hint of finesse. He’ll go down as one of the best players to every play on Rocky Top.
There’s no question that Williams is the go-to piece, but Admiral Schofield is one crazy good sidekick. The undersized big is an excellent stretch four in addition to having the ability to play the wing in spurts. The 6-foot-6 forward is shooting over 40 percent from three and Tennessee force feeds him touches.
Schofield has at least 15 field goal attempts in nine games. The senior has attempted 60 more shots than Grant Williams and has already tossed up over 100 threes on the year. The versatile player scored over 20 points twice against UK last season and will be able to pull at least one UK big away from the basket at all times.
The main reason Schofield starts at the three is because Rick Barnes needs to have senior Kyle Alexander on the floor. The 6-foot-11 big is fairly skinny, but his long reach can wreak havoc on the offensive boards. He is very active and does a great job in playing volleyball and keeping rebounds alive for his teammates. He’s very limited on the offensive end, but can seriously impact the game with his rim protection. For a UK offense that has struggled with length, Alexander will cause some issues.
Keys to Victory
- Defensively, Tennessee wants to pack the paint. They do not want to allow foes to get easy buckets so they’re willing to give up three-pointers. That has hurt this squad at times and currently the Vols rank 13th in the SEC in three-point defense. In games against projected NCAA Tournament teams, Kentucky’s two perimeter scorers have performed. In these games, Keldon Johnson is shooting 50 percent from deep on 40 attempts while Tyler Herro is shooting 39.3 percent on 56 shots. Kentucky must be able to take advantage of the open looks from three.
- Since putting up a career-high 23 points in his homecoming game at Georgia, Ashton Hagans has only reached double-digits scoring once in the last eight games. The stud freshman “hit a wall” according to John Calipari and it appears he hasn’t fully adjusted to defenses sagging off. After a brutal performance against LSU, Kentucky needs Hagans to snap out of his offensive funk. Kentucky is not going to beat really good teams without solid point guard play on the offensive end.
- The Vols are excellent on the offensive glass, but on the other end they have struggled to keep opponents off the offensive glass. Tennessee ranks sub-200 nationally in defensive rebound percentage while Kentucky ranks top five in offensive rebound percentage. The focus will be all on P.J. Washington, but both E.J. Montgomery and Reid Travis have a great shot to impact the game by creating extra offensive possessions.
- Despite being an outstanding three-point shooting team, the Vols only get 24.1 percent of their points from behind the arc. They are excellent at drawing fouls and being efficient from two-point range. Tennessee is shooting 57.7 percent inside the arc due to their efficiency inside and high level execution in the halfcourt. Playing a team this good on offense, it will be essential for UK to not give away free points. Kentucky must guard without fouling.
- Speaking of fouling, P.J. Washington has finished with at least four fouls seven times in 11 games against projected NCAA Tournament competition. Last year against Tennessee, Washington spent the majority of two games on the bench with foul trouble. The other game he had to sit out due to cramps. For Kentucky to win, they have to have their best player on the floor. Washington is tough draw for both Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. He could dominate the game if he guards without fouling. Don’t expect him to check Grant Williams.