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The Six Things Kentucky Needs to Do to Beat Tennessee

It’s the Game of the Century – welllllllll, maybe not quite. But even though Kentucky lost Tuesday to LSU, Saturday’s showdown with Tennessee remains massive. For the Wildcats, it is another chance to add a huge win to their resume, one to go along victories at Louisville, against North Carolina, and a season sweep of Mississippi State.

A win Saturday would also put Kentucky in line to reach all the goals they laid out before the season: To win the SEC, get a No. 1 seed and have a path to the Final Four through Louisville.

Of course to do that, Kentucky will have do something virtually no one else has been able to do this season: Knock off the Vols. Understand that Tennessee is every bit worthy of their current No. 1 ranking, as they sit at 23-1 overall and 11-0 in the SEC, with their only loss against Kansas, at a time when Kansas was at 100 percent. Since that loss, Tennessee has ripped off 19 straight wins. And what’s been especially impressive is that few were particularly close. The Vols have won their last six by double-figures.

So yeah, this game is huge and it won’t be easy for Kentucky to get the win – but when you’re as good as the Wildcats, it’s not impossible either.

What are the keys to a Kentucky victory? Here are six:

1. Can Ashton Hagans slow down Jordan Bone?

While it’d be easy to say “Kentucky’s No. 1 key is to slow down Grant Williams” that’s kind of approaching the problem the wrong way. You’re basically getting the right answer by asking the wrong question. Because ultimately you know what leads to so much of Williams success: Having a point guard who gets him the ball in a perfect position to score.

That point guard is Jordan Bone. And to his credit, Bone has quietly emerged into the most consistent point guard in the SEC. He is also the engine that drives the Vols’ bus, as the guy who plays the most minutes of anyone on the Vols roster (yes, more than Williams or Admiral Schofield) and has a sparkling 3.5-1 assist to turnover ratio. There is nothing more valuable in college basketball than a smart, veteran point guard who knows his role and does his job. And that is Bone for the Vols.

That’s also what makes Hagans’ play so important on Saturday.

It’s no secret that Hagans is one of the 2-3 best on-ball defenders in college basketball (if not the best) and Kentucky’s best hope of winning is to cut off the head of the snake – in other words, cut off Tennessee’s offense before they can get in rhythm. Can Hagans stay out of foul trouble and stay in Bone’s grill? Can he make it tough for Bone to get Tennessee into its offensive sets?

The best chance to beat Tennessee is to take them out of their rhythm and comfort zone. And Hagans is more than good enough to do that.

2. Kentucky needs to limit Tennessee’s three-point shooting

Again, because so much of the focus is on Williams and Schofield, what gets lost with Tennessee is that at most times they have five guys on the floor that can beat you at any given moment. It isn’t just the Vols two All-Americans, but also Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner who can get 20 if you don’t defend them.

And that’s especially true from beyond the three-point line. On the season, the Vols are shooting nearly 37 percent as a team with Schofield (40 percent), Bowden (39.5 percent) and Turner (37.5 percent) all hitting an insane number of threes.

That’s the bad news for Kentucky, but the good news is this: While three-point defense was once of this team’s biggest weaknesses it has now become a relative strength. The overall numbers don’t totally back it up (again, because Kentucky was so bad in the category to start the season) but the recent numbers do. In the Wildcats last four games, three of their opponents have shot below 30 percent from the three-point line. Even Tuesday’s loss to LSU wasn’t so much to do with the Tigers getting hot from the three-point line as other factors – LSU finished just 6 of 21 from behind the arc.

More than anything on the defensive end, limiting the three-point shot for Tennessee is key.

3. Get deep into Tennessee’s bench

Fun story. Late last summer I had Nevada coach Eric Musselman on the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast (by the way, if you haven’t been listening, this week’s guest is ESPN’s Sean Farnham – and he was awesome. Download here) and one of the topics we discussed was his team’s depth entering this season. I asked him if it was nice to have all those extra pieces and he told me something surprising. “No,” he said. “I’d rather have a shorter bench where everyone knows their role.”

Well, if there is one team that follows the “a short bench where everyone who knows their role is ideal” edict to a tee, it’s Tennessee. The Vols have six players who play 25 minutes or more this season, and basically take up big chunks of minutes. Two other players (Yves Pons and John Fulkerson) average between 10 and 12 minutes a piece. After that, basically no one sees the floor.

But even that eight-man rotation (the six who average 25+ minutes a game + Pons and Fulkerson) is deceiving. While Pons does play quite a bit because of his defensive presence (he’s 6’9 and a good defender) he brings next to nothing to the table offensively, averaging just three points per game. Fulkerson plays an “average” of 10 minutes per game on paper, but if you really dig deeper, most of those minutes came during blowouts in out of conference games. He has played 10 minutes or less in seven of Tennessee’s 11 SEC games.

Again, it’s Tennessee’s top six or bust. Meaning that the best thing that Kentucky can do is attack the Vols and try to get a few of their key guys in foul trouble. Do that, and the Vols have to insert either Pons or Fulkerson (or maybe both) into the lineup which makes them less versatile and less of a threat offensively.

Here’s a random prediction for you: If either Yves Pons or John Fulkerson plays more than 15 minutes on Saturday, Kentucky wins.

4. Get production from their own bench

It’s no secret that once Kentucky goes to its own bench, things get dicey. Quickley, E.J. Montgomery, Nick Richards and Jemarl Baker have all shown flashes at various points this season, but none has been terribly consistent.

The good thing is that it feels like on most nights, at least one of the bench guys does show up. While the stat sheet doesn’t show it, Quickley gave the Wildcats productive minutes against LSU in the place of the foul-prone Hagans, and Montgomery has had his moments as well, most notably with a double-double against South Carolina a few weeks ago.

The talent is there from all four guys off the bench. The issue is consistency.

I’m not quite sure who will step up on Kentucky’s bench. But if they can get good production from someone, it should help them get a victory.

5. Slow down Grant Williams to the best of your ability

Look, whether you’re a Kentucky fan or not (and I’m thinking that most people reading this article are) it’s indisputable how much value Williams brings to the floor. For most of the last two seasons, the guy is a walking double-double, someone who plants his butt in the paint, gets the ball and either gets a bucket or gets fouled. The fact that he’s a lethal free throw shooter (83 percent) and is now shooting three-pointers a bit better (he’s made nine this season) makes him that much more dangerous.

Therefore, it feels kind of dumb to say that Kentucky should try and “stop” Grant Williams. It probably ain’t happening.

But, with P.J. Washington and Reid Travis can you slow him down? I think so. And to me, that is one of the more interesting elements of this game.

While stylistically I thought LSU – with all those tall, long athletes – was a bad matchup for Kentucky, I actually think the Wildcats match up pretty well with Tennessee. Kentucky has the athletes on the perimeter to – at least in theory – slow down the Vols backcourt and Travis and Washington have the size to handle Williams down low. With all due respect to Williams, I’m not sure that he has seen anyone with the bulk to handle him in the paint since Tennessee played Kansas, when the Jayhawks had Udoka Azibuke. And that was the one game that Tennessee lost this season. Williams finished with a respectable 18 points and eight rebounds, but also fouled out.

Can Kentucky implement a similar game-plan in hopes of slowing down Williams? I think so. And Washington and Travis are key.

6. If you get Tennessee down – can you keep them there?

As you guys know, I pride myself on watching as much college hoops as anybody. And I will readily admit that it’s been a long time since I missed a Vols game. They’re just a really good basketball team and a really fun watch and so I try to catch them any time I can.

But as I’ve watched Tennessee more and more, I’ve also noticed something about them: It’s been a long time since they’ve really been challenged. Now sure, they were pushed to the limit early against Kansas and Gonzaga, but since SEC play started the Vols have basically been on cruise control. They are 11-0 in league play and have won nine of those games by double-digits. And in watching them it really does feel like at times they take their foot off the gas. I can’t tell you how many times over the past month they’ll 20-point lead, relax, and watch that lead get down to eight or 10. Then they’ll go on another run and crush the opponent into the ground.

So why do I bring this up?

It’s because I have genuine concerns over whether that’s sustainable on Saturday. Furthermore, what happens if they aren’t playing from ahead all game? What happens if they can’t build a massive lead? What happens if the game comes down to the final few possessions and they have to make plays or heck, if they fall behind and have to make up a lead?

The only time Tennessee has had to answer those questions in the last six weeks were when they played Alabama and at home and Vandy on the road. And I’ll tell you this: That is nothing compared to a hostile Rupp Arena against a Top 5 team in the country on a Saturday night.

So can Tennessee handle that adversity? Probably. But I’ve also seen Kentucky in crisis – at Auburn, at Florida, at Mississippi State, and just about every single time they delivered.

I do believe these two teams are evenly matched up, but at home, give me the Wildcats.


Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

27 Comments for The Six Things Kentucky Needs to Do to Beat Tennessee

  1. michaelb
    6:19 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    Great points of emphasis Aaron, I believe Ashton can bottle up the streaky Bone. A good one I never thought about that you said was start off making those refs call fouls on Tennessee . That will be an easy quick way for Kentucky to create an advantage early – I bet coach goes for that by giving pj the ball early & often . That will help with maintaining any lead we may get on them. Grant is also taken out of his game by being physically shaken up , I’ve seen it a number of times this season & last . When he starts harping to the refs about being scratched hit & elbowed he kinda checks out of the game himself mentally. It’s proven to work against him . In a vacuum this game is a coin flip , 50/50 on who wins . My personal call is 65-68 cats

  2. UKfanman01
    6:32 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    Very good article… buuuut real life goes like this:
    What UK needs to do to pull off upset- SCORE MORE POINTS

  3. VirginiaCat
    6:50 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    All excellent points. I would add a 7th one: Don’t get out coached. That means calling timeouts when needed, making in-game adjustments, remembering who is available on the bench, formulating a good game plan, staying aggressive with the lead, etc. We will need a good efforts all around, coaches as well as players. Go Cats!

    • runningunnin.454
      7:08 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

      Are you in the Naismith HOF? Whom do you coach…anybody I would have heard of?

    • UKPROF
      7:35 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

      All very good observations VirginiaCat, but bottom line, UKfanman01 is spot on, if UK wins, it will be because they scored more points than Tennessee…PERIOD.

    • 4everUKblue
      7:51 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

      RG454 got you again VACat. You just never learn.

  4. VirginiaCat
    7:58 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    You are correct UKPROF, final score determines the game. I think that the intangibles favor us. We will be playing at home and Rupp should be rocking. We need a win to offset the LSU loss and the outcome will have an impact on our national ranking and tournament seeding. Not to mention that the game will garner national interest and provide an opportunity to highlight our brand. Plus, I think Tennessee is a bit overrated. They are good, but not the #1 team in the country. This will be, in Coach Cal parlance, OUR Superbowl. Win or lose, it will tell us a lot about where we are as a team. I think that the rematch in Knoxville will be even a better barometer, but lets take it a game at a time. Go Cats.

    • 4everUKblue
      12:01 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

      Again VACat, learn to respond to the correct post instead of starting a new post, it’s not that hard. See where it says reply? CLICK THAT!

    • unbridled
      1:21 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

      Cats by 12

    • runningunnin.454
      4:51 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

      Again with the Super Bowl reference; I’ll retire to St. Mary Bethlem.
      Western Kentucky has more NCAA tournament appearances, and more NIT tournament appearances than Tennessee.
      They will never be our Super Bowl.

    • henderblue
      8:17 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

      Thank you for that rg. They will NEVER EVER be our Super bowl. Ever…

    • 4everUKblue
      9:12 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

      NEVER! VACat has been in VA too long, probably why he’s trying to get on the UK bandwagon.

    • Ridge Runner
      2:44 pm February 16, 2019 Permalink

      No dude.. no one is our super bowl. Bad reference.

  5. clarks
    8:05 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    We need beast version of pj and Reid and we win

    • J. Did
      8:31 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

      Love your clogs, bro. Been wearing them for years. I have two pair; and my wife bought me another brand. Still need inserts. This gear is a part of how the new west is won.

  6. J. Did
    8:26 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    GO CATS!

  7. KYjellyRoll
    11:19 pm February 15, 2019 Permalink

    UK draws fouls and makes their FT then I see this game getting away from tn. And I mean 15+ points. Go Cats.

  8. Luether
    12:23 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

    Another excellent post, Aaron. My sources say that FT shooting will also be a factor…

  9. unbridled
    1:22 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

    CATS by 12. Let’s goooooooooooooooo

  10. nicky
    8:49 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

    “Kentucky needs to limit Tennessee’s three-point shooting”……it would be nice if somebody had to limit our 3-point shooting for a change

    • henderblue
      9:28 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

      Good point Nicky. We need to make shots. And free throws

  11. ScottGreene22
    10:31 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

    78-70 CATS!!!

  12. kyinsider
    10:59 am February 16, 2019 Permalink

    Hey Guys! Check out the #1 up and coming Kentucky sports blog. Your source for all things Kentucky Wildcats and Big Blue Nation!

  13. Ridge Runner
    2:46 pm February 16, 2019 Permalink

    Baker, give us at least 2 three’s! With a little bench help and we play with intensity from the starters.. we got this!

  14. CopenhagenCat
    5:48 pm February 16, 2019 Permalink

    My 1. Would have been score points than them .

  15. AreJ
    10:22 pm February 16, 2019 Permalink

    Can we take a minute to appreciate just how spot on Aaron was?! I like my team.