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Three Things: Kentucky

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

In true, 2020-2021 Tennessee basketball fashion, the Vols caught a 70-55 beatdown at the paws of Kentucky just days after scoring 90-plus points and beating South Carolina by 20. Here are three things.

Sometimes Having Taller Players Helps in Basketball Games

Yes, I know. I’m breaking the kind of hard-hitting news you guys come here for. Somebody call a big-J Journalist — they’re going to want to re-word what I said and pass it off as their own.

The Wildcats are a difficult matchup for the Vols this season, and one of the ... biggest ... reasons why is Kentucky’s collective height. UK starts two post players — Olivier Sarr at 7-0, 240 pounds and Isaiah Jackson at 6-10, 210 pounds. Just eight Kentucky players logged minutes in Saturday’s game, and two of those three players off the bench were forwards — Jacob Toppin at 6-9, 195 pounds and Keion Brooks at 6-7, 205 pounds.

While Tennessee’s guards are all relatively tall, the Vols are pretty drastically undersized in the post. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons get most of the minutes down low, listed at 6-9 and 6-6, respectively, while its reserves in the post are usually Olivier Nkamhoua at 6-8 or EJ Anosike at 6-7. Unless Barnes goes with a small-ball lineup in which the power forward spot is played by Josiah-Jordan James at 6-6 or Keon Johnson who’s 6-5.

Kentucky only registered four blocks against Tennessee Saturday, with Isaiah Jackson having two and impacting several more shots by literally just being present near the goal and the would-be shot taker. Fulkerson and Springer, in particular, struggled converting shots near the basket as they went a combined 3-10 on attempts in the paint.

Overall, the Wildcats outscored the Vols 24-20 in the paint, won the rebounding battle, 43-31, and scored seven points off offensive rebounds whereas Tennessee notched just two points off second chances. Kentucky scored 14 fast-break points, and quite a few of those baskets came from one tall Wildcat throwing the ball over UT’s defense to another tall Wildcat who finished for a layup at the rim.

On this play, Keon is distracted by the help and possible trap long enough for BJ Boston to get his long arms around Keon’s back and poke out the ball. Mintz collects it and drops in a sweet pass for Jackson to catch and finish without having to put the ball on the floor. There aren’t many players in the college game that can get into a jump-ball scenario with Yves Pons and win, but Isaiah Jackson is one of those guys.

Here, the shot clock is winding down so Keon has to let fly a bad shot, and he either a) air-balls it or b) gets it partially blocked by Toppin. On the other side, Toppin gets the ball on the wing and drives to the center. He dips his shoulder a bit, uses his own step-back move to open up some air and then wets a jumper. Super smooth play from the younger brother of former Dayton Racer, NBA lottery selection and current New York Knick Obi Toppin.

Neither Allen nor Mintz, the two defenders most near Gaines on this play are that tall, 6-6 and 6-3, respectively, but it’s enough to bother Gaines into a bad miss. Yves doesn’t bother to box out Brooks, who slides in to collect one of his 14 rebounds.

(Brief aside here: Santi misses a wide-open Springer — Springer’s basically behind him, so it would have been a tough find, but you’d like the guy playing point guard to have a feel for where his guys will be on the break. Also, Vescovi needs to know his personnel better. Dishing the ball to Gaines on the fast break is risky business even if there aren’t any defenders in the area, but asking him to finish in traffic just isn’t doing the job well enough as a point guard. I might be asking too much here, too. IDK. Oh, yeah... some un-good spacing on the fast break — Pons and Nkamhoua standing right next to each other.)

Tennessee’s had issues defending screens at times this seasons. Here’s another clip to add to the reel.

This play isn’t so much about Kentucky’s height and length, but boy did Toppin show some athleticism with this oop. It looks like Tennessee was switching screens here — pay attention to the action on the other side of the floor, and then watch Springer’s reaction after the dunk. There’s always a good chance I’m wrong, but this looks like a defensive miscue from the Vols.

Having taller players isn’t the only reason Kentucky beat Tennessee — all the Vol turnovers didn’t happen because Kentucky used its length to be in the passing lanes and not every rebound the Wildcats snared was because they’ve got taller guys. But they’re a big, athletic squad, and Tennessee couldn’t find much of a viable counter.

Static Springer

After a four-game stretch of some tremendous basketball, Jaden Springer had one of his worst outings as a Vol by shooting 2-11 and ending with just four points. He had a shot near the rim blocked by Jackson early in the game, and he just didn’t look right offensively after that. He finished 0-4 from, deep which is pretty uncharacteristic for him. He’s the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter (47 percent) and averages fewer than two attempts per game.

I’m not sweating the off night from downtown for a few reasons. Statistically, it appears to be an aberration, and I don’t remember any of his attempts being face-palmingly bad decisions. Plus, it felt like he was trying anything to get himself going, and he gets a little extra leeway for that. I would rather a player do what he did rather than keep trying over and over whatever the thing is that isn’t working. But inside the arc, things weren’t pretty, and I don’t really have any ready-made justifications for that.

There were a few instances when he drove into the lane, and conscious of Kentucky’s big men near the hoop, he elected to pick up his dribble and just pivot around instead of decisively going up with a shot or passing the ball off to a teammate. Springer was tentative against Kentucky, which is something he wasn’t in the last several games.

Along a similar line, free throws were notably missing from Springer’s box score. He had zero makes out of zero attempts, whereas he averaged seven makes out of 8.3 attempts (85 percent) during the four-game hot streak. One way to combat a height disadvantage near the rim on offense is to go straight at the defense and make the other team contest the close shot without fouling. UT did some of that and didn’t get a whole lot of help with the whistle as is known to happen sometimes. The offense needs Springer to use his stout build and get back to bullying guys near the rim.

Freon Keon

The Vols were pretty universally bad against Kentucky Saturday, but Keon Johnson was one of the bright-ish spots. He finished with 15 points, second on the team in scoring to Victor Bailey’s 18, but it came on an inefficient 4-14 overall effort from the field that included a 1-5 outing from 3-point range. He also tied for the team-lead in turnovers with three, which underscores a season-long malady for the freshman.

Politely, he’s been a bit, uh, cavalier with the ball all season, leading the team with a 2.4 turnovers per game and a 6.1 mark per 100 possessions. More troubling — the issue’s gotten worse instead of better as the season’s progressed. He averaged an even two per-game during the year’s first 10 contests but is up to 2.8 in the games since.

All turnovers aren’t created equally, and though they’re unilaterally not good, some are worse than others. The one shown in the first video of this story, where Boston catches Johnson lacking a bit and literally goes behind his back for the steal, can probably be chalked up to a lack of focus. That, and BJ Boston’s long arms. Those TOs fall into the “worse,” category.

This one, though, hits me more like a good play by Toppin than it does, necessarily, a bad play from Johnson (Toppin’s long arms don’t hurt here, either). I’ve watched this several times and started thinking this could be something Kentucky’s coaches caught on film. It kinda looks like Toppin knew what Johnson was going to do before Johnson knew what he was going to do, which makes me think this is Toppin playing a consistency that’s been caught in tape study sesh. The Vols like to put Keon and Jaden in the post, so there’s enough opportunities for Keon to develop a pattern and it get noticed. Then again, maybe Toppin just guessed right and made a good play.

Regardless, Johnson and the rest of the team have to take better care of the ball. Tennessee has registered at least 10 turnovers in ten consecutive games, is averaging nearly 14 per game in that stretch and is now rocking a .500 record over that duration. The Vols were 10-1 before this period and on average gave the ball away fewer than 10 times per contest. These stats aren’t adjusted for anything, like, ya know, how good the opponents were, so they don’t paint a full picture. UT turned it over just 10 times against the ‘Cats and had its lowest TO% (15) since it posted a 14.5 TO% against Kentucky the last time they played. Let’s hope that’s something that keeps trending the right direction.