7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kentucky -13.5, Over/Under: 159.5
Bitter SEC foes occupying very different places in the league pecking order clash tonight at Rupp Arena, as the Thirteenth-Ranked Kentucky Wildcats host the struggling Tennessee Volunteers in search of vengeance for an earlier upset. When these teams last met back on January 24th, Tennessee (14-11, 6-6 in SEC) absolutely stunned the visiting giants, holding on in an 82-80 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena. Rick Barnes’ charges had been searching for a signature victory with which to rally behind, and they got it against the Wildcats, jumping on them early and leading throughout the contest. From the outset, it was abundantly clear that the Volunteers came to play, outworking their more heralded rivals on virtually every possession, and withstanding every run that was mounted. Senior Guard Robert Hubbs III (14.3 PTS, 48.8% FG, 5.0 REB, 2.0 AST) had himself a performance, leading the hosts with twenty-five points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field (64.3%), along with seven rebounds and a pair of assists, while the Bench, led by Admiral Schofield (fifteen points) and Lamonte Turner (ten points), outscored their opponent’s reserves thirty-seven to four. On the whole, the Vols shot a stout 46.9% from the field, but really benefitted from Kentucky’s poor showing on the offensive end; the ‘Cats shot a miserable 41.7% overall, while netting a dreadful 6-of-24 attempts from beyond the arc (25.0%), and proved very sloppy with the basketball, committing fourteen turnovers. Needless to say, that victory could not have come at a better time for Barnes and Co., who had stumbled mightily throughout the first half of their conference schedule, losing four out of six contests after besting Texas A&M 73-63 back on December 29th. Since the triumph over Kentucky, the Vols have gone on to win three out of five, but are nonetheless left looking for answers after letting one get away from them in the form of Saturday’s 76-75 collapse at home against middling Georgia. Tennessee led by as many as fourteen points in the second half, which is becoming quite the trend in Knoxville; Barnes has seen his team relinquish leads of thirteen points or more in each of their past three defeats. With 59.5 seconds left to play, the aforementioned Turner (8.8 PTS, 37.0% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.2 AST) sank a clutch three-pointer to give his team a 73-71 lead, only to see the Bulldogs’ JJ Frazier score the final three figures of his twenty-nine points the old-fashioned way to seal the deal with just over twenty seconds remaining. Barnes had to be disappointed with his team’s performance on the defensive end, where the visitors shot a blistering 51.8% from the field, including 22-of-37 from within the three-point arc (59,5%), offering very little resistance at the rim. Freshman Forward Grant Williams (12.5 PTS, 54.0% FG, 5.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 2.0 BLK) scored a game-high thirty points on 10-of-16 shooting, but the rest of the Starting Five proved to be very ineffective, combining for a pitiful twenty-six points in the loss. So what’s been the problem in Knoxville, you ask? Basically, it’s just a lack of experience, particularly when it comes to wasting the large leads; apart from Hubbs, Barnes’ rotation is comprised almost entirely of Sophomores and Freshmen, who have struggled to put the ball in the hoop DESPITE the fact that they lead the SEC in assists (15.3). They’re sharing the basketball well, but they’re not finishing, which is a big problem. They also tend to be rather predictable and one-dimensional offensively, shying away from the perimeter, where they only attempt 16.5 treys a night (13th in SEC), netting only 33.8% of said attempts (11th in SEC). Of course, their opponents read the Scouting Report, and double down in the paint, making it more difficult to execute in a crowd, rendering the Volunteers to a poor 46.2% shooting in that area (12th in SEC). There are only fourteen teams in the league, folks, so if you don’t get it yet, this is a very INEFFICIENT offensive team that is in dire need of some spacing to open things up.
Meanwhile, it may not seem like it, but Kentucky (20-5, 10-2 in SEC) is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment, as John Calipari continues to look for new ways to motivate his young, yet ridiculously talented group of kids to play more consistently in lieu of the looming NCAA Tournament. After losing just twice in their first nineteen games, the Wildcats have dropped three out of their last six outings, which has put them in a three-way tie with both Florida and South Carolina for First Place in the Southeastern Conference. Ironically, their troubles began in their previous meeting with Tennessee, in which they came out extremely flat early and failed to dig their way out of their self-inflicted hole, thanks to a litany of turnovers and some dreadful shot-selection. The heralded Freshman triumvirate of Malik Monk (21.7 PTS, 48.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL) De’Aaron Fox (15.7 PTS, 47.1% FG, 4.2 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.6 STL), and Edrice Adebayo (12.9 PTS, 60.3% FG, 6.9 REB, 1.6 BLK) accounted for sixty-three of their team’s eighty total points that night, yet had a heavy hand in the ‘Cats’ struggles in their own ways. Monk continued to jack up three-pointers with reckless abandon (3-of-13) while committing five turnovers, with the lightning-quick Fox failing to finish frequently (2-of-7 in the paint), while plagued by foul trouble. Adebayo on the other hand, made all but one of his eight attempts from the field (87.5%), while securing five rebounds and swatting a pair of shots in what was arguably his finest performance of the campaign. However, as we detailed before, the Bench scored just four points, and if we’re going to be completely honest with ourselves, the only reason the visiting side managed to climb back into the contest was because they lived at the Free-Throw Line throughout, knocking down 24-of-31 freebies (77.4% ), seven more than the Vols. A little over a week later, Kentucky was obliterated by Florida in an embarrassing 88-68 blowout in Gainesville, leaving Calipari to close ranks and put his charges through the proverbial paces, even after rebounding in victories over the likes LSU (92-85) and Alabama (67-58). The veteran coach has continually criticized their frequent habit of playing isolation-heavy basketball, which is to be expected with a group of such highly-recruited prospects to begin with. And above anyone else, Calipari should know this given his lengthy track record of coaching high-profile One & Done kids. However, we believe the message that he’s really trying to send is that they need to focus on the defensive end of the floor just as much as they do going the other way; in league play, Kentucky is yielding a middling 75.2 points (8th in SEC) on 45.5% shooting from the field (12th in SEC), including 49.7% from within the three-point arc (10th in SEC) and 35.6% beyond it (9th in SEC). Furthermore, no team in the SEC has allowed more two-point Field Goals (20.9) or Field Goal Attempts of that variety (42.1) than the Wildcats, which is insane when you consider their remarkable athleticism and length. Sure, they’re capable of hanging ninety-plus points on anyone, but as was the case last week against last-place LSU, they lost focus late and allowed a 9-15 team to close down the stretch. Call it a lack of focus, commitment, consistency, or whatever you will, it’s a problem that will likely rear it’s head in the NCAA Tournament and Calipari knows it, and he’s desperately trying to correct it. With just six games left in the Regular Season, time is running out for these guys to right the ship on that front, but with Tennessee on tap they have been presented with the opportunity to heal what ails them. Since he took over in 2009, Coach Cal hasn’t lost to Tennessee in Lexington, winning six consecutive meetings, with his side trumping their opponent by an average margin of 12.7 points, with only one of them being decided by less than ten points.