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Tennessee at Kentucky Preview

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Round Two this year is in Lexington, where the Cats look for revenge and the Vols look for anything good on the road.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Sixteen days ago Rick Barnes and company turned in the best memory of Tennessee's basketball season, coming from 21 points down to beat Kentucky in Knoxville.  Yesterday in a good old fashioned letter to the editor at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Johnny Majors suggested it was one of the best memories of far beyond this year:

(For those of us old enough to remember Coach Majors, the way he talked is clearly reflected in the way he writes and I love it.)

Since then Kentucky beat Florida by 19, Georgia by 34, and won at South Carolina by 27.  You're welcome, Coach Cal.

Tennessee will, as usual, not be welcome in Rupp Arena.  I keep writing this stat when we make our annual trip up I-75 and one of these years we'll get to change the number, but for now the Vols still have more Sweet 16 appearances (5) than wins in Rupp Arena (4), and we've been going there every year since 1977.  The Vols won in 1977, 1979, 1999, and in Bruce Pearl's first season in 2006.  That's it.

These days no one else is having much luck in the building, as Kentucky holds the nation's longest home winning streak.  For Tennessee to bust it up and beat Kentucky again, they'll need to once more do three critical things:

  • Get to the free throw line. Coach Barnes mentioned this week the Vols are 10-1 when they shoot more free throws than their opponent, which makes UT 2-12 when they don't.  Saturday's poor performance at Missouri dropped the Vols to 78.7% in conference play, but that still leads the league.  As you'll recall, Tennessee went 30 for 34 against Kentucky in Knoxville.  We know better than to expect a friendly whistle in Lexington.  Nonetheless, the sooner Kevin Punter and company can take advantage of the defense and get to the line, the better.
  • Armani Moore returns to attack mode. Take out the Kentucky game and Moore is averaging 6.2 points per game in conference play.  Against the Wildcats he had 18, taking full advantage of bigger defenders at the top of the key.  This also led to him having a big day at the line, going 7 of 8 against the Cats.  The Vols are having enough problems getting consistent play from their bench; they need Armani to be Armani against Kentucky again.
  • Take fewer threes, make more of them. The Vols take 24.25 threes per game in SEC play.  But against Kentucky, despite being down 21 points, the Vols took only 19.  Again, job one is to get to the line.  Tennessee hit eight against the Cats (42.1%), well north of the 33% they're shooting on the year.  The Vols have proven they can win without a high percentage number (6 of 19 against Florida, 7 of 24 against Auburn).  Keeping their attempts down and finding other ways to score is the more important point.
All of this would be a challenge if we were facing Kentucky in Knoxville again.  Rupp Arena would be a challenge for a Tennessee team that was great on the road.  This Tennessee team in Rupp Arena?

Hey, it's only opportunity.  7:00 PM, ESPN.  Go Vols.