Remember when Bruce Pearl and John Calipari only saw each other once a year? If both coaches keep their programs going in the direction we've seen this year, methinks we're in line for a bunch of these weekend rubber matches in the SEC Tournament.
This year, Kentucky won the first one, 73-62 in Rupp Arena. Tennessee led 51-50 with under ten minutes to play, but the Cats went on a run that the Vols had no answer for: after taking the lead, UK held the Vols without scoring for more than three minutes, turing a 60-56 lead into a 70-56 gap. Wayne Chism and DeMarcus Cousins mirrored each other (Chism 12 pts 5 rebs, Cousins 5 pts 12 rebs), but the UK freshman backcourt of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe had 40 points and shot 4 of 9 from three. The Vols were led by the point guard duo of Bobby Maze (15) and Melvin Goins (14). (Check out A Sea of Blue's thoughts on the first meeting)
In Knoxville two weeks later, Tennessee got revenge. Sitting back in zone and daring Kentucky to beat us, we were elated to discover that in Knoxville, the Cats could shoot only 2 of 22 from beyond the arc. Tennessee ambushed Kentucky 20-6 in the first eight minutes, and built a lead as big as 19 points in the second half. Kentucky took back every single one of those points, tying the game at 65-65 with more than two minutes left. But the Cats wouldn't score again, Scotty Hopson buried a huge three pointer, and Tennessee hit their free throws to secure a 74-65 victory. The Vols were led by J.P. Prince with 20 points, and while UK got a double-double from Cousins (15-14) and another 10 and 5 from Patrick Patterson, their backcourt was less effective: John Wall got 19, but on only 6 of 16 shooting, and Eric Bledsoe was only 3 of 10. ASOB offers the UK perspective on this one as well.
So while in both games there have been double digit leads for the eventual winner, for the most part these games have been very hard fought, and very competitive. Now as we go to Round Three...what have we learned?
1. Play zone and hope for the best
It's becoming the blueprint against Kentucky - I've heard several commentators question why anyone would play a single possession of man-to-man defense against the Cats, and the Vols are inclined to agree. They caught Calipari off guard with it the first time, but when the Cats were expecting zone the second time, UK couldn't make the outside shots to negate it.
The Cats opened SEC Tournament play by going 1 of 13 from three against Alabama. Kentucky could follow Tennessee's lead and shoot a higher percentage in their second game in Bridgestone Arena...but let's hope not. Their performance against the Tide was just enough to make shooting a question mark again, after the Cats closed the regular season by going 8 of 18 against Florida. The Cats are still shooting 34.3% from beyond the arc on the year (the Vols shoot 31.8%), but those numbers have been way down over the last several weeks.
If Kentucky is hot from the outside, we and everybody else in America are in trouble. Expect Tennessee to sit back in zone and find out.
2. Value the possession
More often than not, Tennessee worked the shot clock down and looked for a good shot in the final eight seconds against Kentucky. That's not to say there won't be plays drawn up or opportunities in transition, but if we get into our halfcourt offense, that offense has to be more than jacking up a three early in the shot clock. Tennessee has put up an almost equal effort from the arc against UK: 6 of 23 in Rupp, 6 of 25 in TBA. But in that second game, several of those threes were poor attempts early in the shot clock when the Vols had a huge lead, which helped fuel Kentucky's comeback.
Somebody is going to have to hit some, no doubt. Cameron Tatum was on fire yesterday, and is a bigger part of the offense now than he was even two weeks ago (he didn't play at Rupp with an ankle injury). And Scotty Hopson, though he's shooting 2 of 19 and 0 of 9 from the arc in this tournament, has proven he's capable of hitting the big shot against these guys. As a result, he needs to play with confidence today.
When Maze and Goins led the way in Rupp, and when it was Prince, Hopson, and Tatum who led the attack for the Vols in TBA, all of them got the bulk of their points inside the arc. Tennessee has to be very good at the tough twos today, driving into the lane and taking contact from Kentucky's bigs. Value the possession, shorten the game, and if the right shot's not there early, make sure we get a good shot late.
Because if you miss against these guys, you have to deal with:
3. Kentucky, Transition, and Fouls
The Cats shot 2 of 22 from the arc in Knoxville, 1 of 11 in each half. That means they erased a 19 point lead with almost no help at all from the three ball.
They did it with transition buckets and free throws, which means they did a lot of it with John Wall. Plain and simple, you can't stop Kentucky in transition. Wall is frighteningly fast, and as one of the best players in the country, he gets the whistle the best players in the country get. In the two regular season meetings against the Vols, Wall shot 20 free throws (and made 16 of them).
We should know by now that trying to draw a charge on Wall is like trying to hit the lottery, and Brian Williams already won it at the end of the game in Knoxville. There's no need to take stupid fouls and give Wall and-one opportunities: if we're going to foul him, then foul him, but hoping to draw a charge is a losing game in the end.
In Rupp, Prince fouled out, and Chism, Hall, and McBee all had four. The Vols spread the wealth around more in Knoxville, even though the foul totals were exactly the same (24 on UT, 18 on UK in both games), with only Hall and Tatum picking up four. It should be noted that DeMarcus Cousins has picked up four fouls in both meetings (more on that in a second). The Vols need to prevent transition opportunities for UK at all costs (that means taking good shots and making them), and minimize the damage when they do come.
4. Be a presence on the boards
DeMarcus Cousins is a beast, and as such he's pulled down 26 rebounds in our two meetings this year. But even against UK's size, the Vols have held their own on the glass in both meetings: UK won the rebounding battle in both games, but only 33-31 in Rupp and 38-34 in Knoxville. The Vols don't have to win the war on the boards, they just have to put up a good fight.
Wayne Chism has done a decent job there despite struggling with his shot against UK, with 5 boards at Rupp and 6 in Knoxville. In the first game it was J.P. Prince who carried Tennessee on the glass with 8 rebounds. And when Brian Williams was back in the full rotation for the second meeting, he had 7. Williams, like Chism, may struggle to score points against UK's size, but those guys can get in there and bang for rebounds.
And we all know Cousins is foul prone and emotional. The sooner Tennessee goes at him and gets a whistle, the better.
5. Play to the moment
...and we're very good at this. We complained about it on Thursday against LSU. Now it's time to rally behind it against Kentucky.
The Vols will be underdogs, our favorite role. They're playing a Kentucky team they know they can beat, and playing with them twice lets us know it was no fluke. This Tennessee team can beat this Kentucky team. It'll take playing smart. It'll take poise. And it'll take all 40 minutes.
I have no idea how to describe the atmosphere, but I imagine it will be special. UK is obviously going to dominate the arena, but there will also be enough orange in the house to give it a football road game feel. If our guys want to take that and draw energy from an "us against the world" standpoint, have at it. Just don't get overhyped and lose the poise it'll take to win.
Kentucky will be ready too, because unfortunately they already played their sleepy game against Alabama. I was hoping the Cats would roll by 30 points yesterday and start assuming again, but now that probably won't happen. But a game like this deserves both teams at their best, and I think now that's what we're going to get.
Tennessee has made their case, and sits at 25-7, now up to 11th in the RPI after the win over Ole Miss. The Vols should be a four seed no matter what happens today, a five at the absolute worst, and the window is still open to claim a three.
To do that, it'll take winning the season series against Kentucky. And that alone would become the highlight of the year to this point. A win today would be one of the biggest Tennessee moments in this rivalry in a long, long time. To beat them once at home is one thing. To take two of three from John Calipari and the 2011 NBA All-Rookie Team is something else entirely.
We've earned this opportunity. We have a good season behind us. We'll have a good chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament next week either way. But today, we've got a chance to do something very, very special. It will take 40 minutes. But this team already knows it can absolutely be done.