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Kentucky 73 Tennessee 62 - What did we learn?

It takes 40 minutes to win in Rupp Arena.  Anything less, and you end up with what we saw tonight:  reasons to feel good about yourself, confidence that you can play with the very best and validation that Tennessee is a good team...and another Kentucky victory. 

Both teams will probably leave tonight feeling like they can play better.  And ultimately, I think both teams are going to take a lot of good things away from this game.  Kentucky got a good dose of the zone defense that lots of teams are sure to use against them the rest of the way...and again, the young Cats picked up a valuable learning experience without actually losing the game.

In the first half, Tennessee held Kentucky to 10 of 28 shooting (35.7%) and 2 of 9 from beyond the arc (22.2%).  But in the second half, the Cats were much more successful in transition, leading to a 14 of 26 performance, good for 53.8% for the second half and 44.4% for the game.  And the Cats hit five threes in the second half, hitting several down the stretch when the Vols were slow to rotate in the zone.  It wasn't perfect for Kentucky, but it was enough.

I think you're going to see a much cleaner game the next time these two meet - the Vols' 17 turnovers helped Kentucky restart their transition offense at crucial junctures, and the Cats' 15 kept Tennessee alive and kept the scoring low.  Both teams can play better, and I think we'd all agree that next time around the game might be better officiated.

Still, the Vols had a solid gameplan and, turnovers aside, executed it well for the first 30 minutes.  Tennessee had a 52-50 lead and a fast break when J.P. Prince was called for a charge with 9:46 to play.  We knew Kentucky had a run in them sooner or later, and from that point on, the Cats unleashed it. 

Down the stretch, Kentucky outscored Tennessee 23-10 en route to the 11 point victory.  John Wall led the way with 24 points in a Devan-Downey-esque performance:  Wall took 15 shots and got to the free throw line 12 times, and scored every time Kentucky really needed him to.  Eric Bledsoe added 16, hitting key threes in Kentucky's run.

The Vols stood toe-to-toe with Kentucky in the paint:  DeMarcus Cousins' streak of seven straight double-doubles was broken, as the freshman finished with 12 rebounds, but just 5 points.  Patrick Patterson and Wayne Chism both found success with jump shots, though Chism fell in love with the three a little too much, taking eight of them in the game.  But the senior battled through various injuries to finish with 12 points and 5 rebounds, while Patterson had 10 and 7.  The final rebounding margin - despite Chism's health, Kenny Hall's 4 fouls and Brian Williams' slow return - was only 33-31 UK.

If this game was a learning experience for both teams, here's what Tennessee takes away from it:

Vol PGs can score after all

If someone bet you that Tennessee's two leading scorers would be Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins, how much money would you have lost?

The two combined for 29 points - Maze with 15 in 21 minutes, Goins with 14 in 19 - and both hit key shots in the early going to keep Tennessee in it.  Goins' play was especially surprising and especially welcome, giving Vol fans hope that there may not be a huge dropoff at the position next season. 

On the other end of the floor, most of John Wall's points weren't the result of defensive breakdowns at the position.  For a team that had struggled with opposing guards outplaying them for the last two years, the play from Maze and Goins tonight was a big step in the right direction, and gives plenty of hope that the Vols won't get destroyed by any great guards they might see in March.

The J.P. Prince roller coaster experience comes to Lexington

Mr. Stat Sheet was at work again tonight:  9 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals...and 6 turnovers.  Prince was also called for a couple of charges (the Vols had 5 on the night), including the crucial one that ended Tennessee's momentum.

Prince is capable of leading this team in more ways than one, and capable of hurting this team in more ways than one.  And we continue to see all of the above almost every night.  His ability to get to the basket and work the baseline on offense are incredibly valuable, and his ability to be "all arms" on defense and create steals that start the fast break is also great.  But his mental mistakes also cost Tennessee valuable possessions tonight.  As the Vols look to March, they need the Prince who fills up the stat sheet without turning the ball over six times.  Until then, we'll continue to settle with both ends of the spectrum.

Renaldo Woolridge is a liability

Woolridge started and played 24 minutes...and had 2 points on a tip-in, and 3 rebounds.  He shot 1 of 6 from the floor, and none of his five misses were even close to going in.  I think the cold streak he's on has seriously wounded his confidence - often when Woolridge gets the ball, he's simply looking to instantly get it to someone else.  Without confidence in his offensive game, Woolridge is simply taking up space.  It's not a stretch to say that the Vols have gotten more out of Steven Pearl than Swiperboy during SEC play.

I trust Pearl's judgment on rotations, but in the future one wonders if we shouldn't see more of Brian Williams in the post rotation and Cameron Tatum (when healthy) on the perimeter.  The Vols are better when Woolridge is hitting his shot, and he does have some athletic ability...but right now we're not seeing any of that, and neither is the opposition, who isn't forced to take him seriously when playing defense.

Where do we go from here?

The Vols lost, but showed up well for themselves tonight.  The hope here is that this is a loss the Vols can build from while Chism and Tatum are getting healthy, because we're getting close to the home stretch and the only games that truly matter in March.

Tennessee is 18-6, 6-4 in the SEC.  The dream of winning an SEC Championship is all but dead with Kentucky at 9-1, but the dream of a good season is very much alive.  The schedule presents a much easier week ahead:  vs. Georgia on Wednesday, at South Carolina on Saturday.  There is no reason for this team to still be down about what happened this week when Wednesday night rolls around.  If the Vols take a deep breath and get guys healthy, I think they're capable of going on a real run to finish the season.  Even a 4-2 finish would get the Vols to 10-6 in the SEC, and position them well in the bracket.

We feel better about point guard play now than ever before.  When healthy, Tennessee still has a very talented trio in Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince, and Wayne Chism.  Kenny Hall didn't score tonight, but grew up a lot on the defensive end with 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 13 minutes. 

Now is the time to come together and play our best basketball.  We saw glimpses of it tonight against a great team on the road.  If the Vols can continue to grow, we're going to be competitive with anyone we play from here on out.  Tennessee is a good basketball is the time to put all the pieces together.