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Tennessee at Kentucky -- Adversary analysis

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Unlike the Florida game, this is not a game I have looked forward to.  The Volunteers have it all this year, and they have it in a way that is very similar to how Kentucky normally has it.  They are extraordinarily deep, very talented, and can beat you in every possible way.  Nobody looks forward to playing a team like this when you are struggling, and to say that Kentucky is struggling, at least in the win column, is an understatement.

The good news is that Kentucky may be as near full strength as it has been all year, and its last performance against a team from Tennessee in Rupp Arena was memorable.  Unfortunately, there is simply nothing to point to on the stat sheet that should give a reasonable person ammunition to say, "There -- we can beat them right there by doing X."  Tennessee is simply superior, top to bottom, front to back.  And they have proven it over and over again.

But if we are looking for glimmers of hope in the Big Orange tidal wave, we have to start at Rupp Arena.  Rupp has been a friendly place for the Cats to play over the years, and in a down year like this, it brings out the best in the Rupp Arena crowd as long as Kentucky leaves it all on the floor.  If that happens, the crowd may lift them to heights rarely seen this year.  Add to that the fact that we have been much better defensively two out of the last three games, and we can search for solace in the words of Galadriel, Lady of Lórien, "Even now there is hope left."  If the lads can be true to what Coach wants them to do, we have a chance.

Personnel:

The top players for the Vols are as follows (as if we need to be reminded):

Per Game Averages
C. Lofton Sr G 17 17 34.5 33.8 81.5 28.3 13.4 3.3 2.2 1.5 1.4 0.1
T. Smith So F 17 17 55.9 38.9 69.5 26.5 13.3 5.9 3.4 1.6 2 0.4
J. Smith Sr G 17 17 44.4 36.5 81.6 26.5 14.8 3.3 2.6 1.6 2.1 0.1
W. Chism So F 17 15 44.4 27.9 38.7 20.8 8.8 5.9 1.1 0.9 0.9 1.1
J. Howell Sr G 17 14 45.5 44.1 78.3 20.1 6.9 1.3 2.9 1.1 0.6 0.1
R. Smith So G 17 3 49.5 25 61.4 19.9 9 2.4 3.3 2.2 1.4 0.1
R. Childress Jr F 15 0 37.9 21.4 61.1 13.3 3.9 3.5 0.9 0.7 0.5 0.4
B. Williams Fr C 14 0 65.7 100 50 13.2 3.9 4.6 0.5 0.4 0.4 0.4

The normal starting rotation is highlighted above.  What I like about this UT team is how they have so many people at or close to double-figure scoring, and nobody dominating the point production.  To me, that is the sign of a team that is poised for a great season.

What you also have to like (or fear) about this Tennessee team is their excellent depth, which just got a lot more excellent with the news that Duke Crews is now medically cleared to resume play after being diagnosed with a heart problem.  Unfortunately for him, he has been on the shelf with no activity for many weeks, but like Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks, his mere presence on the floor will help, even for short stretches.  Not that the Vols are likely to need it.

The one thing we cannot do this game that we did last game with Nick Calathes is let their star, Chris Lofton, beat us.  It is said that Lofton is having a down year, but this is true only in relative terms.  He is shooting rather poorly from the perimeter right now, but that could end anytime, and if we entertain any hopes at all of beating Tennessee, we can't afford to find out if he will continue his pedestrian shooting.  We must guard him as though he were shooting it at 50%, because against us, he is likely to.

Athletically and size-wise, we aren't really at a disadvantage against UT.  But their bench depth will hurt us -- a lot, if we play at their pace.  Tennessee doesn't zone much, so Patterson should have a bit more freedom inside than recently, but he still has to contend with some very skilled UT bigs who are all capable of taking him away from the basket and shooting the three.  It will be interesting to see how well he handles good shooting big people, as the Cats really haven't faced that all year.

Offense:

Tennessee is ranked 8th in the nation and second in the SEC in offensive efficiency at 118.8.  Neither their two nor three point FG% is all that impressive, but they put points on the board and are averaging over 74 possessions per game.

We all know how the Tennessee offense works, and it hasn't changed much since Pearl first came.  The goal of the Vols is to get lots of possessions, baskets off of defensive transition and shots early in the offense before the defense has a chance to get set.  We cannot, and I mean cannot, run with the Vols.  Vandy, a much deeper and better shooting team tried, and they got run out of the gym.

The teams that have done the best against UT this year have done so by defending the heck out of them.  To have a shot at the Vols, our defensive efficiency must grade out close to 120.  How hard is that?  Well, we have been over 115 four times this year, and the best team we have played at that level of efficiency is UAB.

Tennessee's offense is somewhat sensitive to pace, although not as much as we would hope.  If we can keep their possessions under 70, it will work to our advantage, although not as much as I would like.

Defense:

Tennessee is a really good defensive club, although not frighteningly good.  Their press gives everyone trouble, and it will no doubt give us difficulty as well.  Since Kentucky is the second-worst ballhandling team in the SEC, I would be shocked if UT didn't turn us over at least 20 times.  The good news is, UK is very good at stealing the ball, much better than recent versions of the Cats, and if we want to have a shot at this game, we'll need to take it away from the Vols tonight.

Tennessee's defense is much stronger than Florida's, but considerably weaker than Mississippi State.  If we can find a way to get opportunities from their pressure, our chances of winning will be greatly enhanced.  But we must avoid falling into the pace trap -- that's what Tennessee wants us to do.  Tennessee's best defense is a high-possession game, and when they get you into that, they are holding all the cards.  Kentucky's best hope is to keep the game in the 65-68 possession range.

Intangibles and injuries:

The intangibles should favor Kentucky, since they are at home and playing a ranked team.  However, as the season wears on, this advantage will begin to degrade without more success.  Losing several games in a row has a way of nullifying home court advantages.  But having Meeks and Jasper back at closer to full strength should place the intangibles firmly in UK's favor.

Injury-wise, UT is healthy and getting healthier with the return of Duke Crews to the rotation.  He is out of shape, though, so I don't expect to see him much, if at all.  Kentucky is getting healthier and Matt Jones says that Jodie Meeks is near 100%.  I doubt that, because his conditioning still cannot be as good as it needs to be.  Jasper is expected to play, but how much and how effectively, we can't be certain.  But with Jasper in the lineup, our rebounding is excellent, and we will need that to have any hope at all.

Kentucky wins if:

  1. The Cats play lock-down defense, a la the Vandy game
  2. Tennessee has a bad shooting night from outside.
  3. Kentucky handles the press and finds ways to score on it without getting into a track meet.
  4. The Cats get hot from outside and stay that way.
  5. Tennessee's bigs are in foul trouble.

Tennessee wins if:

  1. 3 or more of the above things don't happen.  They are a much better team, period.

Bottom line:

Tennessee is not really vulnerable to anything that Kentucky can do to them, except for a hot shooting night.  We will need to either find some kind of magical formula to get them off their game, shoot the ball exceptionally well, and (not or) get a favorable whistle.  A victory against the Vols would truly shock the basketball world, or should, although many would not be so due to the history of the two teams in which Kentucky figures much more prominently.

On the other hand, Kentucky is vulnerable to UT's depth, press, outside and inside shooting.  We have no answers for them if they play well, except to somehow play much better.  Our limited depth is like a big, juicy piece of rare steak to their press, and if we are within 10 at the end of the game, we should all be very impressed.  This is one of those mismatches very similar to the Kansas game in last year's NCAA's, with the only real advantage being that it is happening at Rupp Arena.  It may be enough, but no reasoning person can like the Cats in this spot.