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Wildcats vs. Volunteers, Part Deux...

It is finally time to leave the Florida game behind, and look at what is in front of us.  Once again the Kentucky Wildcats will take on their hoped-to-be (by Bruce Pearl, anyway) rival, the Tennessee Voluteers.

Back on January 28th, the Wildcats dealt a Lofton-less Tennessee a harsh setback in Rupp Arena.  Since then, Lofton has returned, more or less healthy.  Slow afoot already, Lofton is still a bit hobbled by his severe ankle injury, but his shooting eye was not affected as his 16 points in a blowout of Vanderbilt last Saturday will attest.  But Lofton was not the only one responsible for the Vol's domination of the 'Dores, as we shall see later.

Tennessee by the numbers

As we all know by now, Tennessee starts senior Dane Bradshaw (6-4/205#/6p/4r/5a/2s)at forward, true freshman Duke Crews (6-7/233#/9p/5r) at center, juniors Chris Lofton (6-2/200#/21p/3r) and JaJuan Smith (6-2/196#/16p/4r) and freshman Ramar Smith (6-2/185#/10p/3r/3a) at guard.  Sophomore forward Wayne Chism (6-9/245#/9p/6r) had a huge game against Vanderbilt and could possibly have earned a starting spot, although more likely he will continue to come off the bench for now.

With the return of perhaps the deadliest pure shooter in America, Tennessee presents a very different challenge than they did three weeks ago.  When you lose 21ppg in scoring and your team leader, it tends to have a negative effect on the team, to put it mildly.  Even at 80%, Lofton's presence makes UT a team to be reckoned with, as Vanderbilt discovered to their sorrow.

Lofton is joined in the back court by the Smiths - JaJuan and Ramar.  JaJuan is an outstanding scorer in his own right, shooting 45% from the field and 37% 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.  An improving 3-point shooter at 29% from three, Ramar is beginning to show signs of being a more dangerous player than the last time UK played UT.

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 2.5 offensive rebounds/game in SEC play.  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 5th in the SEC in assists, 4th in steals and 2nd a/t ratio.  His current weakness is shooting, averaging a pedestrian 30% 3-point and only a 36% FG percentage.

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.  But the super-sub is sophomore forward Wayne Chism, who charged into the breach against Vandy with a 17 point/12 rebound effort that may have been the coming-out party for a brand-new 'Cat killer.

Offensively, Tennessee as a team plays at a very fast pace, 13th nationally, compared to UK's 114th.  In spite of the pace differential UT and UK are similar in offensive efficiency, 31st and 27th respectively.  The Vols are second in the SEC in scoring offense (80.8) compared to UK's 8th at 73.2. Kentucky leads in most other SEC offensive categories except  3-point% (UK 9th, UK 5th), turnover margin (UK 11th, UT 2nd), offensive rebounds (UT 3rd, UK 10th), and made 3-pointers (UT 1st, UK 9th).

Defensively, there is no comparison.  Kentucky is 4th best in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up only 65 ppg compared to UT's 74+ (last in the SEC).  UK is 18th in the nation in defensive efficiency, while the Volunteers are only 50th.  In effective FG defense, UK increases the gap even more, at 21th to UT's 185th.  The Volunteers in the lower half of the nation at defending the 2 (195th), while UK is excellent at 27th.  3-point defense is similar, but not quite as exaggerated.

The one place where Tennessee shines on defense is in steals.  UT is 21st 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, 274th, and 10th in the SEC.  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, shooting 3-point shots, and pretty good at offensive rebounding. They are average or below in almost every other statistical category.  

Conversely, UK is an excellent defensive team, but has struggled at times with putting the ball in the basket.  If UK can shoot the ball well without having a total breakdown defensively, the odds of them winning this game, even in Knoxville, are very high.

The matchups in this game dramatically favor Kentucky except for Lofton.  Morris will be able to dominate in the paint unless he plays poorly.  Morris has been spotty lately, good game followed by a disappearance, so we'll have to wait and see.  It will be interesting to see how Kentucky handles Lofton.  Even at 80%, Lofton is a serious scoring threat because he requires so little daylight to get off and make a shot, and his range seems to be unlimited.

The Volunteers don't guard in the half court, and Crawford, Bradley and Meeks will get lots of open looks from three.  If they shoot like they did in the Florida game, this will be a very long night for the Wildcats.  Morris must demand the ball, and Jasper must find a way to score some points and get some rebounds.  Tennessee is over-matched personnel wise with very few exceptions, both in the starting rotation and off the bench, and the Wildcats will need to utilize that talent advantage to the maximum extent.

Tennessee's 1-2-1-1 zone press is much more effective at home then on the road, and the crowd will be huge and rowdy in Thompson-Bowling tonight.  This zone press is designed to 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 Wildcat team to handle the ball, and handling the ball is not UK's greatest strength

Bottom line - Kentucky should win this game, but it will likely be much closer than it was in Rupp.  Tennessee has it's leader back, and even if he isn't quite 100%, it will make a significant difference.  Kentucky must hang with them early, as I fully expect a hyped-up Vols team to really get after them in the first 5 minutes of the game.  Kentucky must match their intensity if they are to avoid an early deficit.  This UK team can catch up and overtake large leads, as we saw in the Arkansas game, but we don't need to test that ability too often.  65% chance of a Wildcat victory.