Editor's Disclaimer -- I will not allow my innate anti-Tennessee demeanor to improperly effect my thoughts on the upcoming "Titanic struggle" (apologies to Marty B.) between the good guys, and the understandably "unliked" Tennessee Volunteers.
Please allow me to be as bold as I wanna be.
In the end, tonight's UK vs. UT game may very well go a long way in determining the winner of the SEC East, as well as the winner of the overall SEC regular season championship. UK's quest for both begins tonight, with a road victory over the Vols. I could present you, dear readers (all eight of you), with all manner of statistics and trends, match-ups and game-plan analysis (all of which I enjoy doing), but today no such elaboration is needed (Ok, I'm sure I will use stats and such, but I don't have to:).
It's quite simple, really (I sense a stat coming). Kentucky has won four of their last six road games against UT (11 of 14 overall) and are playing much better than Tennessee at the present (the Vols have lost four of nine). More pointedly, defensively the Vols would have a hard time guarding Lincoln, which really isn't anything new since Kevin O'Neill vacated the Vols head coaching slot for Northwestern, eons ago.
For all of his personality-plus, sizzle, and apparent admiration for Pat Summitt, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl can't seem to get his teams to play defense. It's not as if he's lacking in the talent, athleticism, or length categories: Pearl plays nine guys at least 14.6 minutes per game. Their heights are as follows -- 6'8", 6'7", 6'9", 6'6", 6'7", 6'10", 6'7", 6'6", and point guard Bobby Maze who checks in at 6'2".
They should be tough to score against, but they aren't. UT gives up 75.1 points per game; they gave up 88 to a Temple team that averages 68.6 points per game; they gave up 77 to a Georgia team that averages 68.9; and they gave up 77 to Belmont.
And it's not as if they smoked the above teams; they lost to Temple, beat Georgia by nine points, and Belmont by two.
I know I probably shouldn't be so harsh on the Vols; someone might think me a homer! But I feel this game has a Big Blue UK 'W' written all over it, even if it is a road game. But, in an effort to be as balanced as possible, I will admit that the Vols offense is a force not to be taken lightly. They average over 84 points per game, and they have any number of players who can go for 18-20 on any given night: one cautinary note to the UT faithful; last year UT averaged 79.5 point per game against non-UK SEC opponents. Versus UK they scored 66 and 63 points respectively.
So obviously, they must be defended, especially in the transition, because they do not lack for finishers; 6'7" swing Tyler Smith (17.7 ppg), and 6'9" c/f Wayne Chism form the backbone of UT's fast-paced offensive mindset, and 6'2" point guard Bobby Maze runs the offense and the break with the delicate and mature hand of a much more experienced player. In short, if Jodie Meeks and DeAndre Liggins/Michael Porter don't come ready to play focused, 40 minute defense, then UK could be in trouble.
Meeks will probably get the Tyler Smith assignment. Smith has two to three inches on Meeks, but Meeks' athleticism and quickness should go a long way in negating Smith's height advantage. Meeks will have to work hard, though, to keep Smith off the backboard (he averages 6.4 rebounds per game), and from feeding the post from the wing or corner (Smith averages 4.1 assists per game). Many of Smith's assists have gone to Chism or big man Brian Williams (6'10" 267 lbs) from a perimeter feed, but he's also capable of penetrating, and taking a shot or dishing to the 'helps' man.
Any way you spin it, he'll be the toughest Vol to control.
The only other match-up that bothers me is Bobby Maze versus Porter/Liggins. Porter, I feel, will have a very difficult time dealing with Maze's speed, which is blazing. Now, I realize Porter has come far, and this isn't meant as criticism, but Liggin's attributes i.e. athleticism and quickness, will be much more effective against a guard with Maze's considerable talents.
Maze is also an excellent penetrator who possesses the best point guard numbers in the SEC -- 55 assists (3.9 pg) to only 25 turnovers (1.8 pg) -- He is quick, and can score (9.9 ppg & 48.0% FG shooting). He must be controlled.
Inside, it will be nice to finally see a Chism v. Patterson matchup (Chism missed last years game in Rupp, and Patterson missed the game in Knoxville). Although I feel that Patterson is a much more talented player than Chism, Chism will be very physical and could disrupt UK's ability to score down on the blocks. But in the end, Patterson's talent should take over, especially if Chism gets into foul trouble trying to stop Patterson's myriad post moves (UK's best-case scenario).
The "No Excuses" statistic: An opposing team that gives up 75.1 points per game, 35.2% 3-point field goal shooting, and 43.0% overall field goal shooting, should not, ever, beat Kentucky. That's the bottom line ... so says the bean-counter.
It was great to see Ramon Harris announce his re-entry into the UK basketball season. It' not only good for the team, but it probably signals the end of Harris' mental struggle to overcome his rather serious head injury.
Any time a player is severely hurt on the field of competition there is always a chance that the mental hurdles are not cleared until well after the athlete is physically able to perform. Harris displayed, in the U of L game , the confidence and self-determination one needs in order to perform at a high level. Finally over his recent back problems, he looked to be playing 'free' of any doubt or reservations about his health. He was unafraid.
Since Harris' return in the Appalachian State game he has combined for the following numbers (not counting the Vanderbilt game): 38 minutes played, four points, four rebounds, 1 of 6 from the field, and three assists. He of course suffered from back spasms after recovering from his head/neck injury, which cost him floor time against Central Michigan. The result: In the three games he's participated in since his injury, he's looked about as good as those numbers, but ...
... Harris' performance against Vanderbilt Saturday set a new standard of excellence for the junior: 5 of 5 from the field, 2 of 2 on his 3-point attempts, seven rebounds and 12 points. All in 21 minutes.
I applaud the young man for his quick return from such a scary injury.
Which leads me to my next topic ...
The Third Scorer
Billy Gillispie has been very forthcoming with his opinion on UK's alleged need for a third reliable scorer to join Meeks and Patterson; In short, he says it's poppycock.
Although as a fan I am much more comfortable knowing that Kentucky has three or four guys that can go for 12-15 points per night, Gillispie makes a cogent point with his thoughts on the seemingly eternally pressing matter: Basically he thinks that UK's "third scorer" need will be satisfied with the cumululative scoring of two or three different players (UK's '97 NCAA runner-up only had two double-digit scorers -- Ron Mercer at 18.1 ppg, and Derek Anderson at 17.7 ppg).
The most likely candidates are Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Michael Porter. Gillispie took Saturday's Vanderbilt stat line and used it as a tool to illustrate his point -- Harris 12 points, Stevenson 10 points, and Porter 8 points -- By my (and Gillispie's) count that's 30 combined points. Prior to Saturday's game those three were averaging 18 points per game between them. So was Saturday's performance a fluke, never to be seen again, or was Saturday a harbinger of things to come?
I'll answer that question with a question: Will Harris, Stevenson, and Porter take full advantage of being open? Will they shoot more?
More succinctly, the reason those three guys don't score more is because they don't shoot enough -- Stevenson leads the way with 4.7 shots per game, Porter averages 3.6 shots per game, and Harris averages 2.9 shots per game -- When one checks out the shooting percentages it's hard to justify, at least in my mind, why they don't shoot more often: Harris is shooting 63.0% overall (an astonishing 74.3% from inside the arc), Stevenson shoots 57.3%, and Porter makes 45.0% of his two-point shots, plus, he's regaining his 3-point shooting touch, making 4 for his last 10 shots (for those who want to know, Liggins is shooting 61.7% from inside the arc -- 29 of 47).
It's not as if Harris, Stevenson, and Porter don't ever possess the ball in a position to score; how many times have we yelled to any of those three, "shoot the ball?" I love unselfishness in a team, but I like winning more. They simply need the confidence to make defenses pay for leaving them open, or loosely guarded.
I think Gillispie is right, though. I'm sure he realizes what his players are capable of, in terms of scoring. He probably knows it's unrealistic to think that one of those guys will suddenly start scoring 12-15 points per game (and I agree), but on the other hand, it's not unfathomable to expect some combination of three players to reach 25-30 points per game on a consistent basis: The combination will most likely change from game to game; Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins, and A.J. Stewart are all also capable of scoring in double-digits. So by my count, that makes six guys, of which three need to score at least eight-plus points per game in order for UK to take the pressure (both figurative and literal) off Patterson and Meeks
So guys not named Meeks, shoot a little more, be hard to guard, and make Gillispie look like a genius.
And finally ...
Bruce Pearl talking about Kentucky:
"They are the benchmark, and we are all compared based on our success or failure against the Wildcats."
Pearl's a patronizing so-and-so.
I don't believe for a minute that his players believe that. School's in session at 9 o'clock.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats, beat the Vols!