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Tennessee vs Kentucky Preview

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The Vols will need the offense that showed up at Vanderbilt and in the second half against Mississippi State to keep pace with yet another top ranked opponent.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

How did the Vols come from down 21 to beat Kentucky in Knoxville last year? Kevin Punter’s 27 points got the glory, but 30-of-34 at the free throw line got much of the job done.

The good news: Tennessee is still pretty good at getting to the stripe, 38th nationally in free throw rate coming into tonight’s showdown with #4 Kentucky. The percentage has come down significantly the last two games: the Vols are still shooting 73.2% on the year but now only 69.3% in SEC play after going 35-of-61 (57.3%) against the state of Mississippi last week. Tennessee can’t lose those 10-12 points at the stripe against Kentucky.

What else the Vols are good at continues to be surprising: first in the SEC in offensive rebounds (93 in seven games), second in blocked shots (33), second in assists (104). Much of the talk surrounding Grant Williams and Jordan Bone is about how good they’ll be in a year or two, but in these departments they’re helping carry the Vols to some fairly lofty heights right now. Tennessee is 44th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, and their assist percentage (how many made baskets came off an assist) has improved from 48.3% in 2015 to 51.3% last year to 54.0% now.

The biggest question for Kentucky is the health of freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, who turned an ankle against South Carolina Saturday. The Cats get #2 Kansas this weekend in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which I’m sure makes it tempting to sit him if he’s questionable against us. Fox is UK’s second leading scorer at 16.2 points per game along with six assists per contest. If he can’t play, it’s unclear how serious Calipari is about playing his son Brad (appearing in garbage time in 13 games so far this year), as senior guard Mychal Mulder is also questionable with an illness.

There’s no joking about Malik Monk though: the 6’3” freshman is averaging 21.7 points per game while shooting 41.4% from the arc. South Carolina has the best defense in the nation in KenPom. Monk scored 27 on 9-of-14 shooting against them. He put 34 on Ole Miss and, as you may recall, 47 on North Carolina.

In conference play this hasn’t been your older brother’s Calipari Kentucky team. They’re shooting 41.4% from the arc, best in league play, and have really only been threatened for 40 minutes by Vanderbilt in Memorial before winning 87-81. Isaiah Briscoe is back and getting 14.3 per game, and 6’10” freshman Edrice Adebayo joins Monk and Fox as projected first-round picks in June in averaging 13.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in 27 minutes. Add in senior Derek Willis and I’m not sure the Vols have played a team as good inside and out as this Kentucky squad, despite our battles with North Carolina, Gonzaga, and the like.

How Rick Barnes chooses to guard this team will be interesting. I’d imagine quite a few Kentucky foes ask themselves some version of that question before the game and it’s not quite as interesting as they’d hoped by halftime. There’s potential here for a bunch of points - Kentucky is second in KenPom’s offensive rating playing the 13th fastest pace in college basketball - but the Vols will need to find a performance similar to what we saw against Vanderbilt or the second half against Mississippi State, only do it against Kentucky, to keep pace.

If this is going to go well, it’ll probably bring us back to the free throw line again. What the Vols cannot do is get crushed on the boards and go ice cold from the arc the way they did against North Carolina (3-of-13 from three, 22 offensive rebounds allowed). A little warmer, a little more physical, and a lot of the high efficiency we’ve seen this offense be capable of? The Vols might have enough bullets of their own to make this a real shootout.

It’s the night shift: 9:00 PM, ESPN. Go Vols.