Wins in Rupp Arena tend to be a once-per-decade event for Tennessee. 1977. 1979. 1999. 2006. And that's it.
Cuonzo Martin's Vols played Kentucky closer than anyone other than North Carolina and Indiana seventeen days ago in Knoxville. Tennessee led by six at halftime and by eight with fourteen minutes to play. But the Vols flatlined at the under eight, allowing Kentucky to build an eight point lead that late Vol threes cut back to the final margin of 65-62. It's those flatlines that have killed the Vols on the offensive end, negating even their best defensive effort.
In Knoxville the Vols held Kentucky to their third lowest point total of the season, forced thirteen turnovers, and held UK to 42.9% shooting, well below their 48.3% average. It continued the trend we've seen since the Memphis game: the Vols have allowed opponents to shoot just 37.8% against them in the last seven games.
Most notably, the Vols shut down Doron Lamb in the Knoxville game, an effort led by Skylar McBee. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was just 4 of 11, but got to the free throw line a dozen times and still finished with a 17-12 as the best player on the floor that day.
But the biggest difference in the last seventeen days is Jarnell Stokes. In his coming out party, Stokes had a 9-4 in just seventeen minutes. Now in the starting lineup, Size 20 gives the Vols all the power they need to matchup with Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis. Jones fouled out of the first game and played just 24 minutes. Davis did his thing with 18-8. But Tennessee responded with Jeronne Maymon's 15-10. Now that Stokes is playing regular minutes, tonight may be the first and only time we see these two tag teams go at it. And it should be a good one.
That is, if Tennessee has figured out how to stand up and be counted on the road.
We didn't have an issue with this in Starkville, which could in part be chalked up to a very lazy effort from the Bulldogs that night (which was unfortunately still good enough to win). But in Memphis, Athens, and especially in Nashville, Tennessee has been flat out bad. And nowhere brings out bad like Rupp Arena.
Some of it is maturity and confidence. If the Vols don't step on the floor with it, what happened in Nashville will happen again. And some of it is Basketball 101: you can't turn the ball over 18.5 times and shoot 25% from the arc - UT's averages in their last four road games - and expect to beat good teams on their home floor.
And of course, not only will we be playing in UT's personal hell (non-Georgia Dome level), we'll be doing so against a Kentucky team ranked first in the nation.
Recent history is on our side against number one teams, something John Calipari knows about...but unfortunately, most of these Vols can't walk with the swagger that comes with such monumental victories, and the only one who can is in the middle of the worst shooting slump of his career. Cameron Tatum is running out of games. We thought it was a home/road or even a roller coaster issue, but he followed up a 1 for 5 performance in Nashville with 0 for 9 against Auburn. We need him, and it'd be really great if he could finish his career here on a high note. But it needs to be now. He did have 16 against Kentucky the first time, for what it's worth.
Wins in this place almost never happen for us. It will take something more, but it would be something special.
7:00 PM ET - ESPNU