Last year this matchup showcased a pair of eventual Elite Eight teams. But tonight's game might be more important than any of the three we saw last year between the Vols and the Cats.
For Kentucky, it definitely is. The Cats are 4-4 in SEC play, unfamiliar territory for the program and its coach. And as I'm sure you're aware, Tennessee gets its coach back tonight, as Bruce Pearl will return with the orange blazer in tow.
Pearl summed our state of affairs up nicely this week:
"We’re a game out of first, or a game out of last, and we’re at a point on our schedule where in order to win we’re going to have to play better.’’
Such is life in the SEC East this year, where Kentucky is one of four teams with four losses at the halfway point. For Tennessee, playing better will include the return of Scotty Hopson, whose presence certainly would've helped against Alabama on Saturday. The Vols held the Tide without a made field goal in the last four minutes of regulation and all of overtime...and still lost.
The bad news there is that Kentucky is statistically the second best defensive team in the league, and Rupp Arena will increase their advantage. The Cats allow the opposition to shoot only 38.3% from the floor, and at home they've shut down Georgia (60 pts, 36.8%), Notre Dame (58 pts, 36.4%), and just about everyone else. This team may have disappointed some of the UK faithful, but the one thing they haven't done yet is lose at home.
Here's how the Vols can change that.
Be the bigger team
Kentucky is second in the conference in rebounds per game, but they're not the offensive rebounding machine the Vols have been (UT is 6th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, getting the rebound on 40.1% of our misses). Terrence Jones (6'8") and Josh Harrellson (6'10") match-up with the Vols in size, but Brian Williams, John Fields, and Tobias Harris can be the more physical players. You cannot give Kentucky second chances in Rupp Arena - the Vols have to win the boards on the defensive end, and continue to be great at giving themselves additional opportunities on the offensive end. This isn't asking us to do anything we're not already good at.
Terrence Jones is a special player, averaging 17.9 pts and 8.9 rebounds. This also isn't a Kentucky team built like the one we saw last year, where the Vols could sit back in zone and dare UK to beat them from three (a strategy that gave the Vols a chance to win in Rupp and got the job done in Knoxville). This Kentucky team leads the league in three point shooting (40.4%), and I'd be shocked if Tennessee played anything other than man-to-man. That means Tobias Harris and Steven Pearl are going to have to try to slow down Jones.
Tennessee could try and attack him on the other end and get him into foul trouble, but you can't expect an overly friendly whistle on the road in this league, especially in Lexington. After having issues with foul trouble early in the year, Jones has only gotten to four fouls once in the last seven games. Kentucky is also second in the league in blocked shots, so going inside will be an adventure for Hopson and the post players.
Still, there's no excuse to get out-toughed in the paint by this Kentucky team. DeMarcus Cousins isn't walking through that door...and Brian Williams needs to lock it behind him tonight.
Tennessee hasn't really been an up-tempo team all year, but this game might be the exception to the rule. Coach Cal plays a glorified six man rotation, featuring small doses of Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood. Kentucky can certainly run; Brandon Knight may not be John Wall, but I'm not convinced that anyone on the face of the earth is as fast as that guy is with the basketball in his hand.
But this could be an opportunity for the Vols to use their depth in a big way. Pearl used the term "fresh and furious" a couple of times during his press conference this week - the Vols could go up tempo on the offensive end and should play with the same aggressiveness they showed against Alabama in the second half on the defensive end.
Memphis tried to run with us, and that worked out beautifully. But though Kentucky also plays freshmen, Memphis they ain't. You could also hope that Kentucky has hit some sort of wall, but it's not really their freshmen who have been struggling.
If Tennessee ups the tempo to try and wear Kentucky out, they need to make sure they're the more poised team. We are without question the more experienced team, and that experience can run 12 deep if we want it to. To press Kentucky defensively is to risk the Brandon Knight blow-by or an open three for a number of guys who can stroke it. If we decide to step on the gas instead of playing the halfcourt slowdown game, we need to make sure we do so to our advantage, and not theirs. They will hit shots. They will make plays. If the Vols can weather the storm early, maybe they can have more left in the tank to win the game at the end.
Make a Statement
If you were to make the case that Tennessee has been a better program than Kentucky during the Bruce Pearl Era, it would go something like this:
- Overall Record: UT 141-54 (.723) - UK 135-61 (.694)
- SEC Record: UT 62-26 - UK 56-32
- Division Titles: UT 3 - UK 1
- SEC Championships: UT 1 - UK 1
- Elite Eights: UT 1 - UK 1
- Sweet Sixteens: UT 3 - UK 1
- NCAA Appearances: UT 5 - UK 4
- Average RPI: UT 13.5 - UK 34.5
- NBA Draft Picks: UT 0 - UK 8
However, there's the small matter of head-to-head: Bruce Pearl is just 4-7 against Kentucky. Now, if you're new to this game, believe me when I tell you that there was a time when four wins in five years against these guys would've been an enormous feather in our cap. But the above numbers suggest that time is over. I want more.
There's also the fact that wins in Rupp Arena are currently a once-per-decade event. Chris Lofton's 31 points got them in 2006. Jerry Green's team pulled off a 47-46 win in 1999. That's about it.
Perhaps the more relevant head-to-head comparison is Pearl vs. Calipari - we're about to see Round 8, and Coach Cal has a 4-3 overall lead. I still think it's true that there's not a coach in the country who respects Tennessee less than Calipari, despite the fact that Pearl and the Vols have wins over his two best teams. Case in point: the last time we met, where the Vols were down six with nine to play on Saturday in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee ran out of gas against the 2011 NBA All-Rookie Team, and Kentucky went on to win by
31 29 (sorry, math was involved). In the middle of that run, Calipari told his huddle that they were playing to win by 30. And they (almost) did, to their credit.
We were completely disrespected on that day, and the Vols who are still around from last year should remember it well. You want Kentucky's respect? You walk into their house and take it from them.
Everyone wearing orange needs to get off that bus knowing this: our best basketball comes home with a win tonight. This is not the best team we've seen this year. This is not the first time we've played in a hostile environment. And in the last five-and-a-half years, Kentucky is not better than Tennessee.
I don't know if they're vulnerable or not. I don't know if they'll play well or not. But even if they do, we're good enough to win anyway.
Bruce Pearl has pulled us closer...much closer than we've ever been before. But I'm over being close. It's time to get even.
Welcome back, Coach.