The day has finally come when Kentucky faces Chris Lofton for the last time. The game against the Tennessee Volunteers comes on the heels of the news that Patrick Patterson, UK's "Mr. Everything" freshman, is down for the season with a stress fracture in his left ankle. One could argue that there could hardly be a worse time for such an injury, and I suppose that's true. Even though Kentucky has had more than it's share of untimely injuries, they are part of the game, very much like home calls, ridiculous fans and strange arena layouts.
The Volunteers are coming off a tough road loss to arch-rival Vanderbilt. If you think UT-UK is a rivalry (it is, at least for the moment), it pales in comparison to the intense rivalry the Volunteers have with the Commodores. Those two teams dislike each other much like Kentucky and Louisville, and the bad blood runs thick and deep. So the Volunteers are not a happy group after losing their #1 ranking to their most hated rival, and are likely to come out against Kentucky very, very strong. For Kentucky's part, the bad news about Patterson is going to be tough to overcome from the standpoint of team psyche. Anytime a team loses someone they count on as much as Patterson, it is a very dicey situation. The fact that Patrick has been our only real low-post threat all year is a major concern, and Kentucky will miss his athleticism and passing as much as his threat to score.
Tennessee, as far as I know, is 100% healthy and ready in all respects. It will be a huge challenge for Kentucky to overcome the athleticism of the Volunteers in their own arena without Patterson, but that is the challenge that faces us tomorrow.
The top contributors for the Vols are as follows:
Per Game Averages
Expected starters are highlighted in yellow, as always.
With Patrick Patterson, Kentucky matches up rather well with the Vols. Even without him, it is not a mismatch situation. Tennessee is not too bulky for Perry Stevenson like Ole Miss was, so Stevenson should not be in any jeopardy of being pushed out of the way by the Vols, at least not to a great extent. However, it will be very difficult for Mark Coury to step in and play Patterson's role, because he is simply out-athleted by the Vols front line. Not only that, Coury is just not a threat to score -- he has struggled all year to make contested layups, and Tennessee does not have to double him like they would Patterson.
One option would be for the Cats to go small, with 4 guards and Stevenson. That would make Kentucky's post play almost non-existent, but would provide the best defensive team we could field, and completely nullify any athletic advantage the Volunteers would enjoy. It would, however, force us to double-team their bigs, and that would leave the double-threat guards with open jump shots. Giving Jajuan Smith and Chris Lofton open looks at three pointers does not seem like the best way to win in Thompson-Boling arena.
Another option that Kentucky has is the 7'2" Jared Carter, who has been said by Gillispie to be much improved and ready for some minutes. Like Coury, he is at a large athleticism disadvantage against Kentucky, but he is also much more of a threat to score in the post. It's not that he is particularly good down there, but he is very tall, long armed and relatively massive compared to the Volunteer big men. They may have trouble guarding him with just one person. Unfortunately, Jarred Carter does not have the hands of a Patrick Patterson, and getting the ball into the post will be much more difficult.
Perhaps a better matchup athletically would be freshman A.J. Stewart. One thing is for certain -- no player on Tennessee's team out-athlete's Stewart. But A.J. has been very limited offensively so far this year, and for him to even score 8 points against the Volunteers would be a major feat. Not only that, Stewart has nothing like the post presence of a Patterson or even a Carter. But he does provide a live body, and if he can somehow find it in himself to stay in good defensive position, Stewart could be a big help.
Last, we have Morakinyo (Mike) Williams. Gillispie has said that Williams is also improving rapidly, but he hasn't seen any time in a long time. Williams has better hands than Carter, but is not really ready to compete in the SEC, much less against one of the top teams in the land. Still, Patterson's absence is going to require a team effort, and I think Gillispie is going to have to give almost all his bench a chance to get in there and contribute. The coach is known to have a quick hook on defensive breakdowns, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that on hold tomorrow, as he needs to find someone, or several someones, to replace the 16 points and nearly 8 rebounds Patterson is used to delivering for the Cats.
One question is whether or not Jodie Meeks will be available. Even if he is, it will only be for short spurts, as he has not been practicing that I know of. My guess is, he will remain on the pine again tomorrow.
Tennessee is a spectacular offensive team in the open floor, but in the half court, they are actually below average. Tennessee wants to play at a high tempo, and will not probe the defense for very long before jacking up a shot and hoping to get the tempo high, especially in Thompson-Boling. That normally would bode well for Kentucky. However, the Cats are not a great rebounding team in the best of times, and Patterson being down will likely magnify that deficiency. If Tennessee gets a lot of extra possessions on offensive rebounds, this game could be very much like a paraphrase of Thomas Hobbes' description of the natural state of humanity, "nasty, brutish and short."
Kentucky cannot run with Tennessee and hope to win. This is not only not an option, it is a one way ticket to embarrassment. Beating them in the half court is UK's one and only hope, and in order to have a chance, the Cats have to slow Tennessee down to a crawl, and force them to play at a pace that they don't like.
Tennessee presses all its opponents and hopes to capitalize on back-court turnovers, which it instantly turns into open looks at three or layups. This is a strength of Tennessee's game, and also a serious weakness. Tennessee generally must get at least 20% turnovers in any game, or they are very much at risk of losing. That's how Kentucky beat them in Rupp Arena, and how Vandy beat them in Nashville. Tennessee has an astonishing .82 correlation between defensive efficiency and opponent turnovers. What that means, in a nutshell, is if they don't produce turnovers, their defense begins to reek.
Tennessee also tends to struggle with offensive efficiency when the game gets to 67 possessions and below. That is because their offensive efficiency also depends on turnovers, which tend to give them better looks at the basket. Tennessee has only had one game where their offensive efficiency was over 107 and turnovers were below 20%, and that was a 76-possession run-and-gun shootout with Western Kentucky.
Intangibles and injuries:
This is a short answer. Huge advantage to Tennessee.
Kentucky wins if:
- Tennessee is unable to score in the low post.
- Kentucky forces Tennessee to turn the ball over.
- Lofton does not go off from three.
- Kentucky's guards live in the lane
- Kentucky forces a slow pace, and takes advantage of it.
Tennessee wins if:
- They play an average game.
- They outrebound Kentucky.
- Kentucky turns the ball over 19% or more.
- Lofton gets hot.
- They dominate the interior.
We have no idea what to expect, but logic dictates that without Patterson, this game is exponentially tougher than it was, and it was already tough. Tennessee is very athletic and they have a lot of pent-up frustration, having lost to the Cats earlier in the year, and having just lost their #1 ranking at the hands of their most bitter rival, who is still is still reveling in that game. It isn't as if the Cats needed to give more advantages to Tennessee than they already have, but God has decided to make Kentucky's hill look just a bit more like K2 than it did before Patterson was hurt.
One thing you can never underestimate is a team that has it's back to the wall. Kentucky is surely that team. This season has been so replete with injuries that nobody still alive in the Commonwealth can remember a more unfortunate team in the area of health. But that's how basketball sometimes goes, and I expect that Gillispie will do his level best to motivate and inspire the Wildcats to perform to their highest possible level. Despite Bruce Pearl's assertion that they are preparing like Patterson will be available, nobody in their right mind would believe that. Despite the suggestions of some Nashville bigots, Tennessee players can read perfectly well, and they know that Patterson will not be walking through that door tomorrow ready to play. That could work to Kentucky's advantage, as Tennessee might not be as ready as they would if Kentucky were at 100%.
Tennessee is very vulnerable in a slow-paced game, and if Kentucky can control the pace like they did in Rupp Arena, Tennessee will likely get frustrated. If Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford can force a lot of UT fouls, it will change the complexion of the game. Tennessee is one of the few teams that fouls more than Kentucky, and they do so by a significant amount.
Tomorrow is a big game, and Kentucky must reasonably be considered a huge underdog. That's not the worst position to be in. Let's just hope against hope we can take advantage of what little leverage we have.