Kentucky has a bad habit of having guys an undersized Tennessee team just has no good answer for. Last night it was PJ Washington: 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting, plus three steals and two blocks. He did all of that in just 23 minutes, which is impressive, but ultimately helpful for Tennessee, as cramps kept him from playing any more than that. Last year it was Bam Adebayo, who had 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting in Knoxville.
But Tennessee has countered with effective play from undersized forwards against Kentucky’s bigs. Two years ago Armani Moore had 18 points and 13 rebounds in Knoxville. Last year Admiral Schofield had 15 points off the bench. And last night, Schofield had 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals in one of the best games of his career. And the Vols have three straight wins over Kentucky in Knoxville (and seven of the last eleven).
The Vols broke what had been their hardest and fastest rule this season: hold the other team under 40% and win, don’t and don’t. Kentucky shot north of 55% in the first half and still finished at 46.2%. Only Arkansas has done better against the Vol defense this year.
But though the defense struggled to find its footing early, the Vols took the thing they were best at – successfully sharing the basketball – and did it better than ever last night. Tennessee had 23 assists on 25 made baskets, 92%. With a flu-ridden Jordan Bone playing only nine minutes, James Daniel and Lamonte Turner picked up the slack with 11 assists between them. And the Vols also worked inside out, as Schofield, Grant Williams, and John Fulkerson combined for another 11 assists.
It is, obviously, the best performance of the year by assist percentage, and significantly better than anything the Vols had done against a power conference opponent (70% against NC State is the next best performance). Tennessee is back up to fourth nationally in that stat at 66.8%; Michigan State, the nation’s new number one (but probably not for long after a loss to Ohio State), is the new leader. Look at how good the performance against Kentucky was compared to the best game in assist percentage in previous years:
- 2017: Appalachian State (74.3%)
- 2016: Gardner-Webb (75%)
- 2015: Tennessee State (78.3%)
- 2014: Tusculum (85.7%)
- 2013: Mississippi State (67.9%)
- 2012: South Carolina (73.7%)
- 2011: Auburn (73.9%)
That’s as far back as the advanced gamelogs go at Sports Reference, but consider the Vols also cracked 80+% this season against Lipscomb (88%) and Mercer (86.7%). Tennessee has successfully shared the ball better in three games this season than in any other game in at least the last seven years. And the top performance came against Kentucky.
As I type on Sunday evening, Tennessee’s strength of schedule is second nationally in RPI, fourth in KenPom. That’s so impressive that, last year, you could make a legitimate argument for Tennessee as an NCAA Tournament team when they surged to number one in strength of schedule after beating Kentucky and Kansas State back to back…to get to 12-9 overall. This team is 10-4 with two RPI Top 15 victories at the moment. And at the same moment, the Vols are the highest rated SEC team in both RPI and KenPom.
Look, this league is going to get nuts. The only winless team is the one that was in the top five when conference play started 10 days ago. The only undefeated teams are Florida, who was in free fall 10 days ago and needed heroics to beat Missouri on Saturday, and Auburn, suddenly allowing us to make the argument that all four of Tennessee’s losses are to really good teams. The entire league is still in the KenPom Top 90. There are no cupcakes on the menu. That Tennessee could be objectively considered the best team in a league like this right now? It’s quite the accomplishment, one that fittingly includes a win over Kentucky.
Lots of work left to do. But lots of good work already on this resume. Don’t stop now.