The Vols have won six of the last ten in this series in Knoxville, including the last two. On the surface it might feel like these two teams are going in completely different directions: the Vols are a frustrating 0-2 in league play after a stellar run through the non-conference, while Kentucky followed up a frustrating loss to UCLA with an absolute beat down of Louisville and a 2-0 start in conference. But Sagarin gives the Vols a 46% chance to win; I’d expect another close one.
Close is going to be the nature of the beast every night in this league. Of the ten SEC teams to play two conference games, only two (the usual suspects from Florida and Kentucky) are 2-0. The Cats themselves beat Georgia and LSU by a combined eight points. Texas A&M was the best team in the league a week ago, now they’re 0-2 with a 22-point loss at Alabama and a 17-point loss at home to Florida. Welcome to this year’s SEC.
This Year’s Lexington D-League Squad
We bid farewell to Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, and Isaiah Briscoe. In their place are, you guessed it, five freshmen.
6’9″ Kevin Knox gets 14.6 points and 6 rebounds, with 6’5″ Hamidou Diallo just behind at 14.4. Facilitating much of this is 6’6″ Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 12.1 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.3 steals. 6’7″ PJ Washington goes for 10.6 and 5.3 rebounds, and 6’0″ Quade Green adds 10.5 per game. Knox is on the floor by far the most at 33.1 minutes per game.
What Kentucky does well:
- Defending the three-point line. The Cats give up an impressive 29.2% from the arc, ninth-best nationally. Georgia and LSU went 8-for-45 (17.8%). Tennessee hasn’t been living from outside, and as many have noted, Jordan Bowden could probably use an even greener light. But the length and athleticism you can assume from a Calipari squad is once again making it difficult for opponents from the arc: last year they finished 12th nationally in this stat.
- Two things Auburn was good at: shot-blocking, where the Cats are 20th nationally in block percentage, sending back 15.7% of opponent shots. PJ Washington is a factor here, but two guys playing fewer minutes are also really strong: Nick Richards averages 1.4 blocks in 16.9 minutes, and Wenyen Gabriel averages 1.4 in 22.8.
- …and offensive rebounding, hooray! After Auburn’s absurd performance Tuesday where they rebounded half of their misses, the Tigers are fifth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage at 38.1%. Kentucky isn’t far behind at 36.6%. I don’t know if we should be worried about seeing the same problem twice in a row, but I’d imagine Barnes is happy to have the teaching moment.
What Tennessee can do to win:
- Turn Kentucky over. If a young Calipari team is bad at something…it’s free throw shooting, of course (68.8%). If there’s a second option for this team, however, it’s turnovers. UK is 199th nationally in turnover percentage, giving it away on 16.6% of their possessions. Tennessee is 61st nationally in opponent turnover percentage at 19.2%. The home floor can help. The Vols have not been shy about going up-tempo when the opponent wants to run; if that happens here, Tennessee needs to come out on top in the turnover department. The Cats had 18 turnovers in their loss to Kansas; 12 of them were steals.
- Be the more mature team. Sometimes the non-juggernaut Calipari teams take a minute to adjust to the night-in, night-out grind of SEC play. The 2016 team started 3-2 in league play, 2-1 in 2014, 3-2 in 2013, and 5-5 in 2011. Tennessee obviously isn’t setting the SEC world on fire right now, but has far more experience with this routine and could take advantage.
- Bring the necessary effort. I’d wager what happened on the offensive glass against Auburn won’t happen again, at least to that extent. But Tennessee also has to focus in if it wants to keep living in the same conversations the Vols have enjoyed since the Bahamas. Winning this one should keep Tennessee in the Top 25, would give another Top 25 win to their resume, and allow the Vols to keep thinking about contending for the SEC title and a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. But an 0-3 start in league play keeps you out of the conference title conversation by default, and would swing the overall conversation back to, “Wait, let’s just make sure we get in this thing.” The Vols have been better than that for the majority of the year. The necessary effort against Kentucky is a 40-minute effort; many, many Tennessee teams as good or better than this one have played 32-to-36 good minutes against the Cats and lost by 6-10 points. I’d expect Barnes to get more out of this team Saturday night than he did on Tuesday. And as it’s done all year, that should be enough to give Tennessee a chance to win.
It’s just the 15th ranked vs ranked game for the Vols at Thompson-Boling; the Vols are 10-4 in those games after the loss to North Carolina. A late tip for your Titans playoff viewing pleasure: 9:00 PM on the SEC Network. Go Vols.