Final Thoughts on the Kentucky Comeback
Signing day has been the lead story for the last 48 hours, but Tennessee's 21 point comeback over #20 Kentucky Tuesday night deserves more publicity. Not only did it tie the Vols with Louisville for more wins over John Calipari than any other program since his return to college basketball in 2000, it served as the latest reminder of how even this series has been in Knoxville in the last ten years.
Tennessee still goes to Lexington to die: the Vols have more Sweet 16 appearances (5) than wins at Rupp Arena (4). In Knoxville it wasn't much better for a long time. From 1994-2006 Kentucky went 10-3 against the Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena, outscoring the Vols by 112 points (8.6 per game) during that span. But Tennessee is now 5-4 against Kentucky in Knoxville in the last ten years (no game was played in TBA in 2014 thanks to ridiculous SEC scheduling). Bruce Pearl certainly did some of that work, including one of just two regular season losses for Calipari's first Kentucky team. But the last two Vol wins in the series have been a 30 point beat down from Cuonzo Martin's Vols and a 21 point comeback from Rick Barnes' squad. The only other team to beat Kentucky more than four times at home in the last ten years is Florida with six, and they've had one extra opportunity. Not only have Kentucky's days of coming to Knoxville for a leisurely victory been over for a long time, Tennessee has outright been better than the Cats in Knoxville over the last ten years. As a fan, that's a sentence I'm incredibly proud to type.
The SEC at the Halfway Point
Instinctively we want to put this league into tiers, and I think that can still follow the standings halfway through give or take how Vanderbilt is feeling on any given night. The Commodores handed Texas A&M their second straight conference loss last night, creating a tie at the top of the standings between the Aggies and LSU at 7-2. Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina are next at 6-3; we'll see how long the Gamecocks can stay in the top group.
The bottom is more clearly defined: Missouri is 1-8, Mississippi State is 2-7, and the state of Alabama is 3-6. It's still quite messy in the middle, however: Georgia and Vanderbilt are 5-4, and Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ole Miss are 4-5. It does feel like A&M, LSU, UK, and Florida are the best teams, but the lack of a runaway favorite means any team in the middle that gets hot can entertain making a run at a bye in the SEC Tournament.
For the Vols at 11-11 (4-5), I still think getting to 9-9 in SEC play will get them to the NIT table, where an additional win in the SEC Tournament could push them through. Tennessee's losses make you believe they can lose to anyone and their wins likewise. Given this Tennessee's second half schedule isn't necessarily harder or easier. But having Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina in their cap and Rick Barnes on the sideline on top of Tennessee's natural drawing power, I think the Vols will be an attractive NIT selection if their record gets above .500 and their RPI stays in double digits.
The schedule may not necessarily be easier overall from here, but it will ease up on the defensive end as the Vols trade one-offs with defense-first teams like Florida and Georgia to offensive driven opponents like LSU and a pair with Arkansas, starting tomorrow night in Fayetteville. Here's something that will make you think even more highly of what Kevin Punter and the Vols have done this season: to date Tennessee has played the ninth most difficult schedule by opponent defensive ratings (via KenPom). Not in the SEC, in the nation. The Vols have already faced eight Top 50 defenses this season. They'll only face ones they've already seen from Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina (granted, all on the road) the rest of the season. (By the way, Oklahoma has faced the sixth most difficult defensive schedule. Buddy Hield is the real thing.)
With the Razorbacks the Vols will face a defense rated 108th, but they trail only Kentucky and them just barely in KenPom's offensive ratings: the Cats are 24th, the Pigs 29th. The Vols and Hogs have identical records at 11-11 (4-5). Crazy stat of the day: Arkansas has played five overtime games this season, 2-3 in bonus time.
Two of Arkansas' four SEC wins came against Missouri and Mississippi State. But they also beat Vanderbilt in overtime and handed A&M their first conference loss last Wednesday. They narrowly missed in Gainesville this Wednesday, lost at LSU by two, and lost at Georgia in overtime. It's a generally competitive bunch, and in league play only Kentucky has beaten them at home.
Last year's core of Bobby Portis, Michael Qualls, and Rashad Madden are all gone from their NCAA Tournament team. Donnie Tyndall's stuff was perhaps at its best against the Razorbacks, beating them in Knoxville and barely missing at Fayetteville before bowing out in the SEC Tournament. Maybe that gives Tennessee's returning players a little extra confidence, but either way they'll be going against a new three-headed monster. Texas Tech transfer Dusty Hannahs, a 6'3" guard, leads the team in scoring at 17.2 points per game with senior Anthlon Bell (16.7) and 6'10" junior Moses Kingsley (16.4 and 9.4 boards) right behind. No other Razorback averages more than eight points per game.
They only take 17.6 per game, but Arkansas leads the SEC in three point shooting at 44.7%, led by Hannahs and Bell. With Kingsley causing trouble inside this can turn into another bad match-up for Tennessee if the Vols can't answer on their end of the floor. The good news for Tennessee: Arkansas fouls more than any team in the SEC. The Vols and their 83% free throw shooting in conference play will take every bit of that. The trick is to get to the line while avoiding erasure via Kingsley, who leads the SEC with 55 blocked shots. This is where you want to see Armani Moore find consistent success in getting to the rim.
The Vols haven't won two straight since conference play began. If they can change that tomorrow night, a road win would do wonders for the postseason conversation. But more important than that right now, Tennessee just needs to go win the next game. If you want the win over Kentucky to mean even more, you bridge it into the next game. I think we'd all be for that.
8:00 PM ET Saturday on the SEC Network. Go Vols.