TV / Stream: ESPN / The '3 (for non-SEC states)
Radio: Slippin' the Mickey
Last year, Tennessee lost to Kentucky 78-65 in Lexington following their most emotionally intense game of the year (the one at home against A&M). This year, the schedule is a bit kinder to both teams heading into the game, with Tennessee enjoying Thursday off and Kentucky waylaying Ole Miss in Lexington. Also unlike last year, this is not a battle for first in the SEC: Kentucky is out of the equation for the regular season crown with a conference record of 6-5, while Tennessee is one game behind South Carolina, though they still control their own fate.
Perhaps no team has been more set back by the Kim-Mulkey-no-touchy-the-precious-snowflakes rules changes than Kentucky: their desire for physical full-court press and preference for offense-by-turnover rather than any semblance of a halfcourt game has hurt them this year. Despite having perhaps the least dropoff from starter to bench in the SEC, they've fallen victim to Florida (twice) and Alabama - two teams that could not have beat them under last year's rules.
That said, everybody plays under the same set of rules, and all teams had their fair share of growing pains. Tennessee was also flustered early on in the season, but have since settled down and are even seeing their defense become dominant once again. So now that we've gotten all the hand-wringing about the rules out of the way, let's look at Kentucky:
- Despite all our imminent jokes about halfcourt offense, Kentucky and Tennessee have similar points per possession on offense and defense. On offense, Tennessee leads 1.070 to 1.018. On defense, Kentucky "leads" 0.823 to 0.824. Those are solid marks. The difference is that Kentucky relies much more heavily on turnovers (on 26% of their opponents' possessions for the year so far) and transition to earn their points; if they're forced into halfcourt sets, their offensive efficiency plummets.
- Nobody gets 30 minutes / game. The minutes leader for Kentucky is Bria Goss with 28.0 minutes / game. But ten players get at least 10 minutes, and Bernisha Pinkett is averaging 9.3. This is the core of what Kentucky does: by rotating deeply, they aim to play at a high pace for the whole game, tire teams out, and make up any lost ground in the final ten minutes. This is also why halfcourt games kill them. Teams that can keep it from being an exercise in suicides nullify this edge, which turns the game over to...
- Okay, all the jokes about halfcourt. Kentucky is not good in the halfcourt on offense. They have their moments, but Matthew Mitchell emphasized the full court press and player rotation. As a result, they're not as strong in the interior as they could be, and teams can exploit that.
Enough about them. Now about Tennessee. To win:
- Minimize turnovers. It's no secret that Tennessee is turnover prone, and that Kentucky lives and dies by turnovers. The answer here is obvious. Save the ball, save the world.
- Maximize turnovers. On the flip side, Kentucky is as bad at Tennessee at taking care of the ball. Much of this is due to their stunted halfcourt development. Do the obvious again, and force them to their weaknesses.
- Inside play on offense. Tennessee's just better in the paint. Keep Harrison out of foul trouble, and work the interior.
- Own the glass. There's no reason that Tennessee can't win the boards on both ends of the floor, especially if they are disciplined on boxing out.
- Get back on defense. Even after Tennessee scores, Kentucky will look for a quick full-length pass and score. Anything to avoid halfcourt offense. Get a couple players back quickly and force Kentucky to work as a team.
Prediction: 85 - 74 Tennessee. Both teams had issues to work through, but Tennessee is much further along their rehabilitation this year. Add in the home court, better rebounding, and nearly-equal depth, and this is Tennessee's game to lose.
Mattingly ThreatCon: Low. It's a Tennessee game on ESPN, which is the opposite of Mattingly repellant. Still, she was in East Lansing, Michigan on Saturday evening (along with Kantner - poor, poor Ohio State), so the travel is less than desirable, especially with a 1 PM tipoff. Logistics likely make this one safe.