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Kentucky blues, or Can the 'Cats Climb Rockytop?

I think one thing is sure -- the UK team that showed up for the second half of this debacle couldn't climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain like Tennessee.  Still, with leading scorer and Tubby Smith bane Chris Lofton doubtful with a high-ankle sprain, the UK Wildcats look to right their badly-listing ship against Tennessee this afternoon at 1:00 PM.

Tennessee has had an interesting season.  They have lost to Butler and been drubbed by North Carolina at home, but they have also beaten #16 Memphis, #15 Oklahoma State an a talented Texas team lead by national POY candidate, Kevin Durant.  The Volunteers (14-6, 2-3) have lost 3 games in the league so far, at Vandy (who also beat Kentucky), at Auburn (whom the 'Cats beat at home) and Wednesday at Ole Miss (whom the 'Cats beat away).  In other words, Tennessee is a bit schizophrenic, but one thing we can count on from Bruce Pearl and the Vols -- hustle.

Tennessee by the numbers

Tennessee usually starts senior Dane Bradshaw (6-4/205#/7p/4r/5a/2s) at forward, true freshman Duke Crews (6-7/233#/9p/6r) at center, juniors Chris Lofton (6-2/200#/22p/3r) and JaJuan Smith (6-2/196#/15p/4r) and freshman Ramar Smith (6-2/185#/9p/4r/3a) at guard.  If Lofton is not ready to go, sophomore forward Wayne Chism (6-9/245#/8p/6r) is most likely to start in his place.

Any discussion of UT must begin with Chris Lofton's numbers, and impressive numbers they are.  Perhaps the deadliest pure shooter in America, An All-American and the SEC's leading scorer, Lofton's status as the bane of Tubby Smith has only risen with the years.  Smith famously passed over Lofton, a 3-star in-state recruit, for Joe Crawford, a 5-star stud from Detroit.  Many pixels have been spent bemoaning Smith's lack of foresight and allowing Lofton to get away, and if he plays on Sunday, many more will be spilled regretting how we let not only a prolific shooter but the epitome of toughness get away.  If he doesn't play, the announcers will discuss the Smith/Lofton/Crawford issue until we rip out our eyes from frustration.  Either way, Lofton wins and Kentucky loses.  Unfair, maybe, but those are the breaks.

Lofton is joined in the back court by the Smiths: JaJuan and Ramar.  JaJuan is an outstanding scorer in his own right, shooting 44% from the field and 36% from three.  JaJuan is quick of the bounce and has an excellent handle.  Ramar Smith is a good complimentary player, adding assists and playing tough defense.  Not a particularly dangerous shooter at 27% from three, though.

In the front court, Duke Crews, the true freshman and gem of the Vols 2006 recruiting class leads the way. Crews is a strong post presence and a good rebounder, shooting 52% from the field and averaging more offensive rebounds than defensive (5th in the SEC in OR/game).  Senior and consummate glue-guy Dane Bradshaw rounds out the team.  At 6-4, he is a short forward, but he is nonetheless a strong and capable player.  Bradshaw is 4th in the SEC in assists, second in steals and second in a/t ratio.  Add that to a 35% 3-point shooter and 42% FG percentage, and it all adds up to an outstanding team player.

Off the bench, the Volunteers have 6-9/240# sophomore forward Ryan Childress, 6-4/193# freshman guard Josh Tabb, and 6-3/195# senior guard Jordan Howell. Childress averages nearly 4 rebounds/game with about 2 of them being offensive.  Tabb is a good 3-point shooter at 38%.

Offensively, Tennessee as a team plays at a very fast pace, 5th nationally, compared to UK's 142nd.  In spite of the pace differential, UT and UK are similar in offensive efficiency, 41st and 36th respectively.  Kentucky has a higher effective FG%, 54% to 52%.  This is somewhat surprising considering Lofton, the Vols and the 'Cats shoot about the same from 3-point range, 35% and 37% respectively.  Tennessee leads the league, though, in scoring offense at 82 points/game, well over Kentucky's lowly 10th at 72 ppg.  UT is a worse free throw shooting team, 65% to 68%. 

Tennessee is also well behind UK in rebounding offense, 8th in the conference vs. UK's 6th.  Kentucky outrebounds its oponents by an average of 2.8 rebounds more per game than UT.  Still, UT gets many more offensive rebounds/game than Kentucky, and is tied for second in the SEC while UK is next to last.  Kentucky also leads Tennessee in assists in the league, but not by much.

Defensively, there is no comparison.  UK is 16th in the nation in defensive efficiency, while the Volunteers are only 65th.  In effective FG defense, UK increases the gap even more, at 12th to UT's 191st.  The Volunteers are one of the worst teams in the nation at defending the 2 (214th), while UK is one of the best at 19th.  Three-point defense is similar, but not quite as exaggerated.

The one place where Tennessee shines on defense is in steals.  UT is 25th in the nation in steals percentage, and 1st in the SEC in steals/game.  UK is one of the worst stealing teams in the nation, 267th, and 10th in the SEC.  Similarly, UT is 2nd in the league in turnover margin, while UK is again 10th.  Kentucky leads Tennesee by wide margins in defensive rebounding, FG% defense, 3-point defense, rebounding defense, and blocked shots.

What it all means

The Volunteers are a fast-paced, pressing, high-scoring team.  They are really excellent in taking the ball away from their opponents and shooting 3-point shots.  They are below average and even poor in almost every other facet of basketball. 

Conversely, UK is an excellent defensive team and does almost everything at least fairly well except take the ball away from opponents.  UK puts relatively few points on the board and is a much more deliberate team than UT.

The matchups in this game dramatically favor Kentucky except for Lofton.  Morris will be able to dominate in the paint unless he plays poorly.  But play poorly Morris has of late, so we'll have to wait and see.  Kentucky played Lofton very well in their last meeting, and Lofton, if he plays, will be 75% at best.  Not the greatest athlete to begin with, a hobbled Lofton can only be effective if Kentucky doesn't deny him the basketball.  But Lofton is a tough kid, and he loves to stick it to Kentucky. 

The Volunteers don't guard in the half-court, and Crawford, Ramel Bradley and Jodie Meeks will get lots of open looks from three.  They must make a reasonable percentage to avoid Tennessee doubling Morris the whole game.  Morris must demand the ball, and Jasper must find a way to make himself worthy of guarding in the half-court.

UT does, however, guard in the backcourt, and they will pressure Kentucky in a way they have not seen all season.  Tennessee's 1-2-1-1 zone press will try to deny the inbounds pass and force traps in the corner.  Turnovers are inevitable, and minimizing them will be a big key to Kentucky doing what is needed to win this game.  Tennessee will force everybody on the Wildcats team to handle the ball, and handling the ball is not something UK has done well this year.

Kentucky has additional advantages besides the matchups.  The game is in Rupp arena and the Wildcats are smarting from two bad losses, one to an inferior but rising team and the second on the road in a game they were leading by 17 points at one time late in the first half.  If Kentucky can be motivated by adversity, they surely will be tomorrow.

Bottom line: Kentucky should win this game easily if Lofton is not 90% or better.  UT is not playing particularly good basketball even with Lofton, and without him, they are far more vulnerable, barely escaping hapless South Carolina at home and losing convincingly to Ole Miss on the road.  Kentucky is a more talented, deeper, even more athletic team who does everything pretty well except rebound and handle the ball.  Even so, they should have more than enough for a wounded and struggling UT today.