Welcome, Big Blue Nation, for opportunity number 26 for the Kentucky Wildcats to excel. Tonight, the
victim opponent will be Kentucky’s biggest historical SEC rival, the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee lost Cuonzo Martin last year primarily due to fan sniping, and hired former Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall away from his previous job at Southern Mississippi. There is an NCAA investigation going on at Southern Miss which could impact Tyndall’s job, but right now, he seems more or less secure, at least for this season and absent any dramatic NCAA action such as a suspension.
Like most Kentucky fans, I was very disappointed when the Florida Gators were named Kentucky’s permanent rival, as there is very little historical support for that position. Tennessee has always been the biggest SEC rival of Kentucky, and recent history does not change over 100 years of hostility. It’s a shame the SEC eschewed history to satiate ESPN’s "What have you done for me lately?" revenue-hungry demand, but such is life in the new commercial entity that is the SEC Network.
Season so far for Tennessee
Season record: 14-10 SEC Record: 6-6
Tennessee has been a bit of a surprise this season, at least for me. The Volunteers weren’t expected to be very good with a cobbled-together-at-the-last-minute collection of JUCOs, transfers, leftovers from the Martin era, and relatively unknown freshmen. So far, Tyndall has done a creditable job, especially in conference. Most of Tennessee’s losses have been to higher-ranked teams with the exception of an inexplicable home loss to Mississippi St. on February 3rd, which quickly sent the Vols in to a spiral that has lost them three of the last four, the lone exception being to conference spoiler Vanderbilt in Nashville. They are coming off a drubbing at the hands of LSU on Saturday.
That said, they are .500 in conference, which is a bit of a pleasant surprise.
Series history for Tennessee with Kentucky
No school in the SEC has been as successful as Tennessee against Kentucky, and it isn’t even close. The vols have 67 wins in 217 tries against Kentucky (31%), 31 more than the second-place school, Vanderbilt. The Vols have a number of successful historical periods against Kentucky, but by far their most successful is between 1975 and 1980, when Tennessee won 9 out of 13 meetings, including five in row between February of 1975 and March of 1977.
|Rank and Records||UK||TENN|
|Strength of Schedule||#20||#60|
|RPI Top 50||10-0||2-7|
- Tennessee is a poor half-court defensive team, but they do force turnovers at the highest rate in the conference.
- Even while they force a lot of turnovers, the Vols give the ball away a lot at 21% of possessions.
- Offensive rebounding is a relative strength of this Volunteers squad. Their big guards do a great job on the glass.
- Tennessee leads the league in steals at almost 13% of possessions.
- For a guard-oriented team, Tennessee does not take a lot of threes.
|3||Robert Hubbs III||S*||G||6-6||206||SO||23.2||6.7||2.9||0.8||0.6||0.2|
|24||Willie Carmichael III||S||F||6-8||210||FR||15.7||3.2||2.4||0.4||0.2||0.5|
|25||Galen Campbell||R||G||6-2||190||RS JR||1.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|5||Ian Chiles||R+&||G||6-1||200||RS SR||4.7||0.7||0.7||0.3||0.3||0.0|
|+||Eligible transfer/red shirt|
|&||Injured, not available|
- Josh Richardson is the man on this team. The senor guard does it all, leading the team in points, assists, and is the third leading rebound. He’s big at 6‘6" and is a good 3-point shooter at 36%. Richardson is also a great defender, averaging almost 4% steals.
- Armani Moore is another fine big guard, and the leading rebounder for the Vols this season. He isn’t a great 3-point shooter, but more of a slasher and an energy guy. He is also among the steals leaders on this team with 3.1%
- Kevin punter is a transfer from IUPUI and the best 3-point shooter among the starters. He’s also a very good defensive player with 3.7% steals and 5.8% shot blocks.
- Robert Hubbs takes good care of the basketball and makes very few mistakes for a sophomore. He has good size at 6‘6".
- Derek Reese is the rebounder off the bench. He can also shoot threes at a fair percentage.
- Devon Baulkman is yet another big guard who makes the best percentage of anyone on the team from three at 41%
- Alex Poythress is out for the year with a torn ACL
- Forward Jabari McGhee is out indefinitely with a foot problem
- Dominic Woodson is no longer with the team and will transfer
- Robert Hubbs is probable for the Kentucky game with a thumb problem
- Braxton Bonds, nephew of Barry Bonds, is out for the season with eligibility issues
- Ian Chiles is out for the season with a shoulder injury
Tennessee is an athletic, pestering defensive team that forces a ton of turnovers and can literally drive an opponent nuts. They play hard, they are lead by a senior who inspires them, and they are a genuine threat to beat anyone on a given night, or lose to them by 20+. They will be backed up by a raucous Tennessee crowd in huge Thompson-Boling arena which is sure to be sold out tonight.
This game is a bit of a dangerous one for Kentucky. Tennessee is capable of playing above their covers and making a bunch of threes, as well as forcing UK into the kind of turnovers that result in easy baskets. Despite their relatively pedestrian ranking and some of their more uninspired performances, Tennessee puts a bunch of live, athletic bodies on the floor who are happy to get up in your grille, all the more so when you have KENTUCKY across your chest.
The Wildcats must focus on getting the ball inside. UT will zone to try to limit Kentucky’s inside game, but Kentucky’s big men have to get deep post position and utilize their size to put the Vols on their heels. Tennessee is one of the few teams in America with guards just as big as Kentucky, so the Wildcats are going to have to use more finesse than usual from the back court.
Kentucky should win this game easily, but has shown a propensity to draw a team’s best game on the road, as well as play down to their opponent a bit. Statistically, this is a mismatch, but no matter what the SEC says, this is a rivalry game, and Tennessee would love nothing better than to be the one to ruin Kentucky’s undefeated run.