Fan bases usually become some percentage of their head coach. Tennessee's dislike for John Calipari runs deep and long, through a decade at Memphis to the bluegrass now seven seasons in. When Bruce Pearl was here, the basketball and the disdain for Coach Cal were at an all-time high. Today? What are we supposed to do with this?
Barnes: Anyone saying John Calipari’s not a good basketball coach is just jealous or an idiot.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) February 1, 2016
We're not afraid of being an idiot, Coach. That being said, Cal's work with this particular Kentucky D-League squad has taken a turn for the better since their loss at Auburn on January 16. Since then they won at Arkansas and vs Vanderbilt and Missouri by a combined 67 points, and took Kansas to overtime in Lawrence. Associate head coach Kenny Payne says the Cats are buying into the idea of not being the most talented team in America, capable of beating anyone and being beaten by anyone.
Kentucky is once more led in scoring by a freshman, with guard Jamal Murray leading the charge this year at 17.4 points per game. The diminutive Tyler Ulis is in the midst of a breakout season, playing 36 minutes a night and getting 16.1 points and 6.2 assists. Isaiah Briscoe adds 10.3 per game. The mismatch here, as you'd expect, is on the block with Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, and Derek Willis all going between 6'8" and 6'11". Tennessee will have to find a way to deal with more than one of them on the floor all night.
The strengths and weaknesses for the league's blue bloods in the game's biggest story lines:
- In SEC play Kentucky leads the league in FG% and opponent FG%. The Cats have been shooting 47.2% while allowing just 39.9% in their 6-2 start. That's the recipe for blowouts. Kentucky is 26th in KenPom's offensive ratings and 34th in their defensive ratings, one of just 11 teams in the nation to rank in the Top 35 in both categories.
- Kentucky allows the fewest threes and fewest offensive rebounds in league play. The Vols, as you know, often devolve into, "Let's just shoot threes," which can be incredibly effective but also incredibly dangerous. It's how Tennessee beat South Carolina and blew a 14 point lead at TCU. While Tennessee is shooting 24 threes per game in league play, Kentucky usually gives up just 16. And while the Vols often send everyone to the offensive glass (fourth in SEC play in offensive rebounds), Kentucky's size has held the opposition to single digit second chances on average.
- The Cats have struggled to get to the free throw line. Last in the league in free throws, next to last in attempts. If Tennessee is going to pull an upset here, taking advantage of their own 82.1% free throw shooting in league play seems like a good idea. The Vols weren't able to get there against TCU; as the second half lead collapsed, Tennessee settled for more and more threes and never stopped the bleeding. The refs tend to reward the aggressors; against Kentucky's size and shot blocking, will Tennessee be able to productively attack? And on the other end, can Tennessee's smaller lineup continue to defend without fouling?