After knocking off Wichita State and Xavier to move to 8-3 with an RPI somewhere in the 40s, life has not been good for Tennessee Basketball: blitzed by Memphis and Ole Miss then losers in a hard fought contest in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee now stands at 8-6, 0-2 in league play, and 99th in this morning's RPI.
Remember, last year the Vols entered league play with an RPI in the 200s, then started 2-5 in the SEC before finishing 10-6, second in the league. It's been worse, but Tennessee needs to rally sooner rather than later in a topsy-turvey year for the SEC where we're not exactly sure how good anyone is, including the Ole Miss team that beat the Vols last week.
That certainly includes Tennessee and certainly includes Kentucky as well. There is no doubting Kentucky's talent, of course. It's just that this season, that talent has been best displayed in close losses to elite teams (75-68 vs Duke, 80-77 at Louisville) rather than big wins. In fact, I would argue Kentucky is yet to beat a team as good as the Wichita State squad we took down. That game was in Knoxville, but Kentucky has been vulnerable at Rupp: Baylor beat them in Lexington 64-55, and most recently it was Texas A&M winning 83-71 behind 40 points from Elston Turner.
Tennessee doesn't have that kind of firepower, of course, but Kentucky isn't just getting beat because guys have hot shooting nights. UK has been vulnerable on the boards, which means this is a big night for Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall to stay out of foul trouble.
It's a big night for Stokes in particular, as he continues to be the dominant story in big games like this and was recruited by Calipari and Kentucky. The Vols have continued to struggle during this stretch with an offensive identity, as both Stokes and Golden haven't just struggled, they're often not even on the floor. So it will be interesting to see how Cuonzo Martin chooses to construct his lineup tonight. Will Armani Moore and Derek Reese see more minutes after solid performances in Tuscaloosa?
Kentucky runs a glorified seven man rotation with five players averaging double figures. Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel got more hype coming in, but Archie Goodwin has been UK's best player and leading scorer at 15.7 points per game. The 6'4" guard is very aggressive and will no doubt be the responsibility of Josh Richardson for most of the night. Noel is no slouch, to be sure, averaging almost a double-double at 10.8/9.3, and while he's not quite Anthony Davis (who is), he'll erase shots in the paint. This is something important to watch for a struggling Vol offense: how often are their confidence and shot selection affected by Kentucky's defenders in the paint? And if you think settling for threes is the answer, remember last year in Rupp Arena Renaldo Woolridge made everything beyond the arc and the Vols still got blown out.
Those three make up a large part of a high-scoring UK offense: 77.4 points per game is good for 29th nationally, and they shoot 48.5% from the floor, 18th nationally. The Vols are still a Top 100 team defensively, 93rd in FG% allowed at 40.4% and 47th nationally in effective FG% allowed. Unfortunately, the Cats are pretty good there too, giving up just 38.1% from the floor. And yet again we have contrasting styles: UK will push at 69.9 possessions per game, but the Vols continue to be near the top in slowdown, 287th nationally at 64.1 possessions per game. This makes Tennessee's ability to slow down Kentucky in transition and not get impatient on their end critical factors.
The Vols need to get to the free throw line, need to win the rebounding battle, and need to dictate pace to slow Kentucky's transition game. But where Tennessee's offense is going to come from outside of Jordan McRae continues to be totally uncertain. And Rupp is extraordinarily unfriendly to Tennessee: outside of winning the SEC Tournament and making the Elite Eight, it is the most rare feat in modern Tennessee Basketball. The building opened in 1976; the Vols won in 1977, 1979, 1999, and 2006. And that's all she wrote. Tennessee has more wins over Kentucky than any other program, but the Vols have as many wins in Rupp Arena as we do Sweet 16 appearances.
It's a huge challenge against a team that just got embarrassed and I'd imagine will be ready to go. Vegas agrees, as the Cats are favored by a dozen. If we're not ready to go, we'll be on the receiving end of the embarrassment tonight. Tennessee is good enough to beat this Kentucky team right now, but the Vols have to put it all together to do so, and it will be an incredible challenge to do so in this building.
However, I'll leave you with this completely insane stat: in our last nine meetings against the defending National Champion, we've won seven:
- 2012 W vs UConn
- 2009 L at Kansas
- 2008 W vs Florida
- 2008 W at Florida
- 2007 L at Florida
- 2007 W vs Florida
- 2000 W vs UConn (NCAA Second Round)
- 1999 W at Kentucky
- 1999 W vs Kentucky