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Tennessee vs Kentucky Preview

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Rick Barnes and John Calipari square off in this rivalry for the first time, as the Vols will need more hot shooting and better second half defense to give themselves a chance.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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?

On advice Cal gave Rick Barnes on the Tennessee job

"I said, ‘Take that job.' I said, ‘That is one of the best jobs. You're close to D.C. where you made your bones.' D.C. is his area. And I said, ‘You can recruit there. You're going to have everything you need there. It has an unbelievable following.' I said, ‘You just got to win.' The last couple guys kind of screwed it up a little bit, but I said, ‘I'm telling you, I'm in this league. It's one of the best jobs in this league.'"

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?
Tennessee's identity already appeared to be in a bit of transition, with Kyle Alexander getting 31 minutes at TCU and consistent production behind Kevin Punter continuing to be an issue.  But the small ball shoot threes formula could be in for a stiff challenge against Kentucky.  How the Vols choose to attack will be interesting to observe coming out of the gate.  And of course, how the Vols can improve defensively in the second half will continue to be a talking point until it changes.

It will take aggressiveness and hot shooting, but when those things are working we've seen Tennessee compete with the best of them, and this Kentucky team certainly qualifies.  We'll see what happens when our biggest rivals come knocking tonight at 7:00 PM on ESPN.  Go Vols.