Saturday at noon, the the Kentucky Wildcats take on the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. This game figures to be a barn-burner between two bitter SEC rivals, especially considering the Volunteers are still dealing with ramifications from l'affaire du Pearl. Despite their troubles, Cuonzo Martin has done a surprising job turning around a team that has little of its big-time talent remaining.
The Volunteers are coming off two games which will inform this one -- a major upset of the Florida Gators at home, and a near miss versus the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in Starkville. That game turned on a slip by Trae Golden in the waning seconds that resulted in a turnover which preserved the win for the Bulldogs.
In the Florida game, the Volunteers simply dominated the Gators from tip to horn, and the game did not look all that competitive. It was a shocking turn of events for the Gators and a shot in the arm for a Tennessee program that had played some good teams close, but up until recently had not been able to win. Tennessee is now playing like a much more confident team, and that will be consequential in this contest.
Roster and statistics
|Jordan McRae||14||22.4||G||Major res.||3.6||9.0||39.7||1.7||4.6||37.5||2.0||2.3||87.5||0.1||1.6||1.8||1.6||1.8||0.8||0.9||1.4||10.9|
|Skylar McBee||14||18.9||G||Major Res.||2.3||5.6||41.0||2.1||4.9||43.5||0.3||0.5||57.1||0.1||0.8||0.9||0.6||0.6||0.5||0.0||1.4||7.0|
|Kenny Hall||14||20.8||F||Major res.||2.6||4.3||60.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||1.4||2.2||64.5||2.1||2.8||4.9||0.5||1.4||0.5||1.3||2.7||6.6|
Strengths and weaknesses
- Size and length
- Overall athleticism and skill
- Shooting, particularly inside the arc
- Team defense
- Offensive rebounding
- Shot blocking
- Blocking shots -- UT is currently 60th in the nation in that stat
- Defensive rebounding
- Shooting. Tennessee shoots it well inside the arc and adequately outside.
- Experience. Tennessee has seven upperclassmen, six of which are contributors and two are starters
- Home court
- Zone offense. UK has struggled to identify disguised zones
- Defensive rebounding
- Turnovers. The 'Cats are getting worse taking care of the ball
- Inexperience with road games
- Getting to the line. The Vols don't
- 3-point defense. Tennessee is near the bottom in the country at defending the three
- 2-point defense
- Steals. Unlike Bruce Pearl's teams, Cuonzo Martin does not pressure on defense
Kentucky wins most matchups on paper, but Trae Golden, in particular, has been really coming on strong and will give Marquis Teague all he wants statistically. Golden is an outstanding passer, but can also put the ball in the basket, leading the Volunteers in scoring.
The other interesting matchup will be Maymon vs Anthony Davis, a story of two different inside players. Maymon relies on his bulk and his lower-body strength to get position, and Davis on his almost unbelievable length and athleticism. This will be a true matchup of strength against length, and the outcome will be interesting.
Finally, there is the question of Jarnell Stokes, a top five high school player who just joined the team. Cuonzo Martin has vowed not to play him until Stokes is ready to succeed, but with a player this talented in a competitive game, it wouldn't surprise me to see him tomorrow. Stokes is a man inside, and that will introduce a variable who's impact could be felt.
Tennessee is a better team than their record shows, and they are beginning to feel their oats for perhaps the first time under the new regime. Coach Martin has gotten the team to buy into his philosophy of tough half-court defense and disciplined offense, and even though that is a dramatic change from the Pearl years, it has started to look promising.
Kentucky has struggled mightily against a zone, and even though UT is not well-versed in that defense, they have had to consider it to hide some of their back-court weaknesses. We'll see if Martin trots out a few possessions of a match-up zone to confuse Teague, a tactic that worked really well for the Auburn Tigers.
The biggest thing Kentucky can do to win this game is to force turnovers. When Tennessee turns the ball over a lot, they most often lose. UK can turn the ball over and still win, but the Volunteers seem especially vulnerable to that particular statistic.
Another thing that really hurts the Vols chances is Kentucky's tendency to shoot a high eFG%. Tennessee is 2-7 when allowing opponents to shoot 50% or above, and the Wildcats have shot under 50% eFG% only five times all year -- and by the way, every one of them was a victory in spite of their poor shooting.
What Kentucky has to avoid is the kind of complacency that obviously accompanied them into Auburn Arena on Tuesday. They took the Tigers lightly, and as a result, had to turn it on in the last four or five minutes to win. Against a likely sellout crowd of 25,000+ in Thompson-Bowling Arena, it won't be easy to repeat that feat. The Wildcats must consider the Volunteers a serious threat to upset them -- because they are.
This will be a hard-fought contest. Whether or not it will be close depends more on what Kentucky brings than what Tennessee has.