Tennessee may be ranked No. 11 right now, but it’s hardly smooth sailing in Knoxville. On Tuesday night, the Volunteers lost at Ole Miss just days after beating Kansas by 19, prompting sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James to question the team’s maturity and national writers to throw in the towel on the Vols being a national title contender.
This morning, assistant coach Desmond Oliver met with the media to break down the loss and look ahead to Saturday night’s game vs. Kentucky. A lot of what he said about the Vols could apply to the Cats right now too. Like bad offense. Kentucky and Tennessee rank No. 10 and No. 11 in the SEC in offensive efficiency and effective field-goal percentage per KenPom, and are averaging less than one point per possession in advanced analytics in conference play.
“We are losing close games a lot of times because our offense is stalled,” Oliver said. “I think that’s the difference between us really having a chance to be a special team as opposed to just being a good team.”
That sounds familiar (the stalled offense part, not the good or special team part). So do Oliver’s comments about the Vols’ backcourt.
“I was very surprised that at this level that our guards from a mental standpoint allowed an opposing team to take their aggressiveness away and not see the court,” he said of Yves Pons and Keon Johnson.
Of course, unlike Kentucky, Tennessee has a winning record. The Vols are 12-4 on the season, but 5-4 in SEC play, which leaves them in sixth place in the conference standings. Oliver senses desperation on both sides heading into Saturday night’s game at Rupp.
“I haven’t watched a ton of them, but I watched their game last night,” he said of Kentucky. “The thing that jumps out to me is that they’re desperate. Like Tennessee right now, they’re desperate for a win. So, we’re going to get the best version of Kentucky, and secondly, is that they’re talented. They’ve got guys that are going to play in the NBA who are just young right now and trying to figure their way out in terms of how to play and how to win games, but they’re dangerous. They’ve got great size—if and when they put it all together, they’re going to be very tough to beat for a lot of people.”
It’s probably past time for Kentucky to do that, but Oliver — in true coach speak fashion — said the Vols have to be prepared in case the switch magically flips.
“Kentucky is Kentucky. Despite their record, they still probably have the most talented roster in the SEC. Certainly one or two—I’m going to say them and Florida. They’re still Kentucky. No one is going in there thinking that because of their record or whatever that they’re not a team that can go out there and blow you out and beat you pretty badly.”
Oliver mentioned another similarity that he believes will work in Tennessee’s favor: size inside. The Vols have also struggled against teams like Alabama that use four guards at once, so John Calipari’s go-to lineups featuring two or three big men should be a welcome return to the norm.
“I like the matchup because the reality is, it’s more of a normal matchup for us, in the sense of we’re not playing against a small ball team. I think several teams that we’ve played against this year end up playing four guards and now you’re in a position where, do you play your normal lineup and play Fulky and Yves, because they’re guarding a smaller guy, or go small ball? Kentucky historically has always had two front-line guys that have great size, so I think it’ll be a typical Tennessee-Kentucky slugfest with two big front lines going at it.”
I’ll remind you that one of those guys is John Fulkerson, who was a thorn in Kentucky’s side last year. He’s struggled a little in recent games, but something tells me he’ll turn in one of his best performances of the season at Rupp. (In that case, it might be a desperate chugfest! Harharhar. I’m sorry. It’s been a long week.)