Tomorrow afternoon, the Wildcats make the short trip down I-75 to Knoxville, TN and challenge the Tennessee Volunteers in Thompson-Boling Arena. For the first time all year, the Wildcats will be without the services of their best player, freshman forward Nerlens Noel. For exactly what that cost Kentucky, you can check out JLeverenz's post on the subject.
Kentucky comes into this game after losing on the road to the Florida Gators. Tennessee is coming off back-to-back road wins against the South Carolina Gamecocks and Vanderbilt Commodores, respectively. Here is the team comparison courtesy of Statsheet.com:
|Rank and Records||UK||TENN|
|Strength of Schedule||#56||#48|
|RPI Top 50||1-5||1-6|
Kentucky and Tennessee have faced each other in basketball 215 times, from 1910 until the present day. Kentucky has prevailed in 149 of those contests (69%) and Tennessee in 66 (31%). The longest period of sustained success for the Volunteers against Kentucky was from 1975-1980, when Tennessee won 9/13, including one 5-game streak and one 4-game streak.
The most points ever scored against Kentucky by a Volunteer was 43 by Earnie Grunfeld in 1976. For Kentucky, it was Jodie Meeks' 54-point masterpiece in January of 2009.
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Finally, here is the most interesting factoid that I came across in my cursory examination of the rivalry. Tennessee defeated #2 Kentucky 78-77 in February of 1993 in Knoxville, then came to Rupp arena and were collectively gelded by the Wildcats, 101-40 only 16 days later - a 61-point beat-down. Alan Houston, a long-time NBA star, was 1-15 in that game. In fact, only 2 volunteers, Corey Allen (who led the UT scoring with 12 (!)) and Jermaine Brown, had as many as 4 field goals. 7 Wildcats scored in double-digits.
Tennessee will be an interesting test with Nerlens Noel down with injury. Jordan McCray becomes a much bigger problem with no basket protection, as does Jarnell Stokes. The biggest worry is that Stokes will put Willie Cauley-Stein in foul trouble with head fakes, and Stokes happens to be 45th in the country in fouls drawn/40 minutes. That dynamic bears watching very closely.
Also, with Kyle Wiltjer getting lots of time guarding smaller, quicker forwards like Josh Richardson and Kenny Hall, his defensive improvement will be sorely tested. Noel's loss has placed Kentucky's depth in a very precarious spot, and foul trouble will definitely mean lots of time for Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood. Calipari will only go beyond that at the uttermost end of need. Keep in mind that Twany Beckham has also been lost to back surgery.
As usual, though, Kentucky's biggest worries will be at guard. Trae Golden and Skylar McBee have both been playing significantly better, though Armani Moore has taken a step back recently and has had very few minutes.
Offensively, Kentucky is going to have to play mostly through Kyle Wiltjer and/or Archie Goodwin. I can almost feel many of you cringe when I mention Goodwin, who has struggled mightily of late, and has really not played particularly well since the game against the Mississipi Rebels. Unfortunately, Alex Poythress has not proven to be either reliable or aggressive enough offensively to be a major option. It's a thorny problem, and one we'll be facing for the rest of the season, however long or short that might be.
Tennessee is mostly a traditional post-up and drive to the paint offensive team. They play tough man-to-man, and Cuonzo Martin does not care for the zone, although if we see one, given Kentucky's struggle with that defense, I don't think anyone would be surprised.
The impact of the loss of Nerlens Noel cannot be measured in points and rebounds. Noel commanded inordinate attention on defense, forcing teams to shoot shots they normally wouldn't shoot just to avoid his extraordinary shot-blocking ability. That effect will be completely absent tomorrow, as Willie Cauley-Stein does not have either the sinister quickness or otherworldly athleticism of Noel that was so feared by opposing teams.
Tennessee will shoot the three, and may shoot more than normal against Kentucky just because the Wildcats are going to have to defend differently. With Noel in the game, you could crowd your opponent and, if he beat you off the dribble, count on Noel's presence to force a careful paint attack that often failed. Now, Kentucky must stay in front of the Volunteer guards, and that means they will get more open looks from three.
Tennessee has been playing better lately, particularly their big people, so naturally, the inside will be a huge problem for Kentucky. The Wildcats will probably be forced to double-team Stokes in the post, and that is never ideal, since Stokes is getting much better at finding the open man on double-teams, and Kentucky has been anything but sharp in their defensive execution lately. Witness the debacle at Florida, where UK had constant trouble switching pick and rolls, because they were just so used to fighting over screens.
Every game from now on out will be tough. This one is winnable, but difficult. There is no line established for this game as of this writing, but I would not be surprised to see Tennessee as a slight favorite. Everyone is going to have to produce at a higher level on both ends, and I wish I could be more confident that will happen.