Kentucky 73 Tennessee 61 - Soft as a baby's bottom

Four white jerseys, one orange jersey at the rim.

Tennessee shot 9 of 16 from the arc in this game, 56.3%.  If you told me this Tennessee team - shooting 31.5% from the arc on the year - was going to hit 56.3% of their threes in Rupp Arena, I would've asked how many minutes Tyler Summitt played at the end of our massive victory, and if any of them belonged to him.  Because clearly it would've been our night.

The Vols played like Kentucky from beyond the arc (Kentucky also played like Kentucky from beyond the arc, 7 of 18 for 38.9%).  Kentucky played like a better version of Tennessee from everywhere else.

We thought inside play would be critical, and that the Vols had the advantage going in.

Wrong.

Tennessee was the best offensive rebounding team in the SEC and sixth best in the nation coming into tonight.  In Rupp Arena, Kentucky outrebounded the Vols by 10, and absolutely dominated the offensive glass.  The Cats got the rebound on 48.1% of their misses.  If they weren't wide open on the backside, they just moved Tennessee's players out of the way to get them.  The Vols, by comparison, got the rebound on only 25% of their misses.

Leading the charge:  you guessed it, Josh Harrellson.

Harrellson averaged 5.9 points per game coming in.  He had 16 tonight.  That's along with 6 rebounds (4 offensive), 2 assists, 2 steals, and a blocked shot, the clear player of the game...unless it was DeAndre Liggins, who came in averaging 8.4 points and turned in a 19-5-3 with 5 steals.  UK has been looking for more from their upperclassmen.  They found it.

Harrellson took eight shots and made seven of them, most (if not all) of them dunks and layups.  The Vols either forgot to put a body on him at all, and when they did he just got the rebound anyway.

Same with Terrence Jones.  Tobias Harris didn't play well.  He's a freshman, and really, he and Jones had almost identical offensive games.  Both were quite freshmanlike in that regard:

  • Harris:  3 of 9, 10 points, 5 turnovers
  • Jones:  2 of 9, 10 points, 8 turnovers

The difference:  you forgive 8 turnovers much more easily when they go along with 11 rebounds (5 offensive) and 4 blocked shots.  Even when Jones was hurting his team with the ball in his hands, he helped them in every other way, including outworking everyone in orange.  Meanwhile, Tobias grabbed only 2 rebounds, a season low.

Tonight's performance could best be summed up by a late possession that saw Harris, back to the basket, assume he would have someone in his face after the Cats harrassed him at the rim all night.  He turned, and there was no one there.  But instead of throwing it down, he was so affected by everything that had happened earlier in the evening, he took an awkward five footer that clanged out.

The Vols were outworked on the glass.  When Tennessee did get the ball inside, they threw up shots that often had little chance of going in.  They didn't attack with confidence or authority, certainly not the way Kentucky did.  As a result, the Vols got to the free throw line just 12 times.  Kentucky went 27 times (and hit 22 of them).

The Cats are young, and committed many of the same stupid turnovers the Vols did.  And as we've seen, Tobias and Terrence Jones both struggled offensively as freshmen sometimes do.

But in all the ways Tennessee needed to be great, and have been great all year, tonight the Vols were soft.  Soft on the glass.  Hesitant at the rim.  And in Rupp Arena, when you do those two things, 56.3% from the arc only saves you from total embarrassment for those who just check the box score.

Sometimes you get beat by good teams on the road by double digits - it happened to the Vols at UConn last month.  But this was a different animal:  Tennessee got destroyed in the area they're supposed to be best at, and only stayed in it because they shot an unusually high three point percentage.

It's not the end of the world - remember that last year, the Vols played at Kentucky and at Nashville in the same week and lost by a combined 30 points, and went on to make the Elite Eight.  We've seen the Vols play extremely well on the offensive glass against good teams this year.

But if this team allows itself to get pushed around like that, and gets intimidated at the rim?  We're done.  And remember when we were always the hardest working team on the floor?  You expected UK to play well and hard on their home floor after two straight losses.  But this Tennessee team got outworked in a big way, and looked lost and intimidated.

I don't know what it will take to learn these lessons and put them on display every night.  The Gators will be just as tough in the paint.  Alabama was too, and they destroyed the Vols there in the first half.  Someone has got to step up and make it their business to get the job done inside.  Can Tobias Harris do it?  What about Brian Williams?  He ended up with decent numbers tonight - 8 points, 9 rebounds - but Harrellson so overshadowed what he did, it really didn't matter.

The Vols were soft tonight, there's no other way to describe it.  If they're soft in Gainesville, they'll lose again.

That game Saturday is a crossroads game for this season.  In the screwy SEC East, the Vols could still win the division if they knock off Florida in the O-Dome.  But if we lose, we fall to 15-10, 5-5 in the league...and we'll be embracing the bubble, with the rest of the entire season spent trying to find the right answer to "Will we get in?"

This was embarrassing.  We've seen the Vols play strong inside enough times this year to not assume we can't do it again.  But we should be humbled after tonight...and then we need to come back with confidence on the inside.  Come strong, and we'll have a chance against Florida again.  Come soft, and we're in trouble.

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