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Tennessee vs Kentucky Preview

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What do the teams that have played Kentucky close have in common?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Though this might be one of the best teams to ever play in Thompson-Boling Arena, the nature of this rivalry has changed with Tennessee's ascension over the last ten years.  Wins in Rupp Arena remain once-per-decade events, but the SEC's haphazard scheduling policy doesn't send the Vols to Lexington this year.  But the days of hundreds of bluebloods making a short drive south and enjoying a few stress-free days in the Smokies have been over for a while now.

Kentucky won 11 straight in this series from 1993-98, then won eight straight from 2002-05.  Bruce Pearl got a win in Rupp in his first attempt, and the Vols have made the games in Knoxville memorable affairs ever since:

  • 2006:  Kentucky 80 #11 Tennessee 78 - having just won the SEC East, the Vols were out of gas in front of a checkerboard crowd, and Rajon Rondo's 12 points in the second half helped secure a UK win.
  • 2007:  Tennessee 89 #20 Kentucky 85 - Bernard King returned to have his jersey retired, prompting Pearl to say, "That's six in a row for Bernard," after the Vols withstood a Kentucky rally behind 23 from Chris Lofton.
  • 2008:  #1 Tennessee 63 Kentucky 60 - An emotional nine days saw the Vols beat #1 Memphis on Saturday, fall at #18 Vanderbilt on Tuesday, and bounce back to take down Kentucky on Sunday, finishing their week atop the polls.
  • 2009:  Kentucky 90 #24 Tennessee 72 - Jodie Meeks goes off for 54 points, setting the Kentucky school and Thompson-Boling Arena record in the Wildcat victory.
  • 2010:  #19 Tennessee 74 #2 Kentucky 65 - The Vols handed John Calipari, John Wall, and DeMarcus Cousins their second loss of the year, building a 19 point lead, watching Kentucky rally to tie it in the final minutes, then closing the game on a 9-0 run.
  • 2011:  #20 Kentucky 64 Tennessee 58 - Bruce Pearl's last game in Thompson-Boling Arena as Tennessee's head coach saw Brandon Knight's 19 trump 18 from Tobias Harris.
  • 2012:  #2 Kentucky 65 Tennessee 62 - Jarnell Stokes' first game in a Tennessee uniform, scoring nine points in 17 minutes.  Anthony Davis had 18 and Kentucky survived when Cameron Tatum missed a three in the final seconds; other than a loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, no team would come this close to beating Kentucky the rest of the season.
  • 2013:  Tennessee 88 #25 Kentucky 58 - Playing without Nerlens Noel for the first time, Kentucky suffered their worst defeat in this rivalry.  The Vols shot 58% from the field and 5 for 5 from the arc, led by 24 from Trae Golden.
So the Vols and Wildcats have split their last eight in Knoxville, including 2-2 against Calipari's squads.  But this one, on paper, is a bit of a different beast.

There are some among us, I'm sure, who know of Kentucky as only the hype machine any undefeated squad deserves without knowing much about the actual pieces.  Let's start with The Brothers Harrison, who both play 25 minutes a night in the backcourt.  Aaron is the team's leading scorer at 11.1 per game and takes by far the most shots on this team.  Andrew runs the point, getting four assists and giving two turnovers every game.  Inside you've got Willie Cauley-Stein, who is probably Kentucky's most well-known player because he's actually stuck around for his junior year under Calipari, and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, who is probably Kentucky's highest draft pick.  It was one thing to struggle against LSU's bigs at 6'8" and 6'10".  These guys go 6'11" and 7'0".  When they tire, Kentucky brings in 7'0" Dakari Johnson.  Or they like to put Towns and WCS on the floor together with freshman Trey Lyles, who's 6'10".  Buckle up.

Kentucky is 14th nationally in points per possession and fifth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (though that number has dipped in SEC play).  But it is on the defensive end where they really shine.

Kentucky leads the nation in:
  • Field Goal Percentage Defense (33.8%)
  • Points Per Possession Allowed (0.81)
  • Defensive Assist to Turnover Ratio (0.5)
The Cats are also second in the nation in blocked shot percentage, sending back 13.1% of opponent attempts.

We haven't even mentioned 6'6" freshman guard Devin Booker, the team's second leading scorer and a 47.3% shooter from the arc.  Or 5'9" freshman Tyler "is that the manager?" Ulis, who runs the point off the bench and shoots 41.2% from the arc.  These eight players get between 18-26 minutes a night.  As Calipari has mentioned, Kentucky doesn't need all of them to be on to win.

When all of them are on, you get violence.  In a 12-0 SEC start, Kentucky has played six rounds of violence and six competitive games.  Since they just throttled South Carolina 77-43, maybe they're due.

What do the competitive games have in common?

There's maybe a little extra infatuation with the three ball, which could be a good thing for Tennessee's zone, or could be another quick death if they knock down those shots the way LSU did.  But there's also a clear argument that, hey, you might need fewer threes if you're up 30.  Playing a team like this you need things to go right for you to have a chance...which means if things go wrong for you, and Kentucky hits those open threes, you're down 20 in the blink of an eye and this thing is over.

In the competitive SEC games, Kentucky from the arc:
  • Ole Miss:  11 of 20, 55.0%
  • at Texas A&M:  9 of 28, 32.1%
  • Vanderbilt:  4 of 6, 66.7%
  • Georgia:  7 of 22, 31.8%
  • at Florida:  3 of 14, 21.4%
  • at LSU:  2 of 12, 16.7%
  • TOTAL:  36 of 102, 35.2%
It saved them against Ole Miss.  But they also won in spite of the three ball in their last three close games.  A person who was looking too hard for reasons to be optimistic, which is what you have to do against this team, might wonder aloud if they were getting a little less disciplined about shot selection as this undefeated season marches on.

But here's what really intrigued me.  When you look at the games they've been tested in, you really don't see any of the usual signs of a near-upset.   Other than 15 turnovers at Florida, they haven't been especially sloppy with the ball.  Other than shooting 28.1% at Texas A&M, their scoring output is almost robotic:  since then they've shot no worse than 43.5% in any game.  And even the Calipari staple of poor free throw shooting hasn't shown up:  72.6% in the six competitive games, better than their season average of 70.1%, and boy did it come in handy in Gainesville, as the Cats went 21 of 22 from the stripe.

And on the other end, after the initial scare from Ole Miss, none of those teams have been particularly effective at the stripe or behind the arc against Kentucky.  Far from it, in fact:  how many of these teams would like to have some of these back?  We thought after the Ole Miss game you had to put up numbers like these just to be close. But look how it's dropped from there:
  • Ole Miss:  19 of 22 FT (86.4%), 9 of 17 3P (52.9%), L 89-96 OT
  • Texas A&M:  16 of 30 FT (53.3%), 2 of 15 3P (13.3%), L 70-64 2OT
  • Vanderbilt:  6 of 12 FT (50.0%), 7 of 18 3P (38.9%), L 65-57
  • Georgia:  15 of 23 FT (65.2%), 5 of 14 3P (35.7%), L 69-58
  • Florida:  7 of 14 FT (50.0%), 6 of 21 3P (28.6%), L 68-61
  • LSU:  10 of 16 FT (62.5%), 3 of 10 3P (30.0%), L 71-69
So, what do all these games have most in common?  The ol' reliable:  for the most part, they shot the ball surprisingly well against Kentucky, despite struggling from the arc and playing against tall shot blocking trees:

  • Ole Miss:  29 of 59, 49.2%
  • Texas A&M:  23 of 69, 33.3%
  • Vanderbilt:  22 of 53, 41.5%
  • Georgia:  19 of 46, 41.3%
  • Florida:  24 of 49, 49.0%
  • LSU:  28 of 59, 47.5%
Remember, Kentucky gives up 33.8% from the floor on average, best in the nation.  Shooting better than 40% against this team is an accomplishment. You can write off the A&M game as one in which UK couldn't throw it in the ocean.  But the others all found success scoring the ball, and other than Ole Miss they all did it without shooting it really well from beyond the arc.

So, to borrow a phrase from Cuonzo Martin, maybe the biggest thing here is just scoring the basketball and making shots.  Tennessee can be a good jump shooting team:  Josh Richardson and Kevin Punter like the pull-up jumper, and Robert Hubbs has developed a nice move going to the basket and putting up a shot that's difficult to block.  Will Armani Moore be able to get the looks he's used to against Kentucky's bigs?  I don't know.

I could be wrong - I was most recently when I suggested the Vols would have a better chance to win against LSU than they did against Vanderbilt and Georgia - but I think if Tennessee is going to compete in this one, it won't be because they turned Kentucky over 15+ times. I think it will have to be because Richardson, Punter, and company had a very good day shooting the ball. The looks at the rim are likely to get erased, and the three ball hasn't been Tennessee's friend in the last seven games, going just 30.3% from the arc in this 2-5 stretch.  Tonight is the night for tough twos, and they need to fall.

Going to this game is like bidding on a blind auction.  Maybe you win tickets to the freak show.  Or maybe you have a chance to win a once-in-a-decade prize.  The Vols will still have a chance to play their way into the NIT no matter what happens tonight.  But maybe, just maybe, Donnie Tyndall's squad will catch relative fire tonight against a team that extinguishes most and is yet to be burned this year.  Either way, you're in for a show.

7:00 PM ET, ESPN, maybe Dick Vitale is snowed in.  Go Vols.