The Border War. It's been a one-sided affair in football, with Tennessee owning the Cats. It's been equally lop-sided in men's basketball, where Kentucky has gleefully returned the favor. In women's hoops? Tennessee owns the series 51-10, but the last three times these teams have squared off the game has been decided by a combined 6 points.
Tennessee's athletic site has a full write up on the fascinating history of this series which is worth a look. The most interesting facts I saw really speaks to the strength of both programs:
- Either Tennessee or Kentucky have won the past four SEC regular season crowns until South Carolina won in 2014, with UT winning in 2013, 2011 and 2010 and UK prevailing in 2012.
- Since 2010, Tennessee, Kentucky or both have been in the SEC Tournament title game.
In summary, this game is HUGE for both programs...and the fans know it. Expect Thompson-Boling to be ROCKING today for what may be the most hostile environment the Cats have played in this season. (Yes, even more so than the lovely reception received at The Chicken Bucket.) The Vols are a perfect 13-0 at home this year, which should tell you everything you need to know about how the home court advantage works for UT.
Tennessee is currently ranked #8th in the country, per the most recent USA Today Coaches' Poll. When looking at RPI, these two teams are neck and neck, with UT listed as 8th and Kentucky at 9th. Statistically speaking, UT beats us in most of the stat lines to include FG%, 3 PT %, Free Throw %, Rebounds per game, Turnovers, Personal Fouls and Blocks. (Take heart: we do beat them for Assists, Steals and overall Average Points per Game!)
Both teams are coming in off some pretty good victories: UT beat Ole Miss in Oxford Thursday night while the Cats were beating Mississippi State in a double overtime thriller. As such, emotions should be running high in both locker rooms...not that this game needed more drama, but there you go.
Tennessee players to watch include senior sensations Isabelle Harrison and Ariel Massengale, who we should remember all too well from our last face-offs. In addition to leading the Vols in scoring, these two represent fully 32% of UT's total points per game. Harrison shots a lethal 47% from the field, and causes serious mayhem on defense where she leads UT in both rebounds and blocks. She's a perfect goose-egg from the 3 though, and is a surprisingly poor FT shooter at 64%: keep her from driving in the paint and you can really shut down her game. Massengale is a triple threat from all scoring areas, to include her ability to sink 86% of her free throws. Altogether this UT squad is very experienced. 6 of their top players are upper classmen, which explains a lot about their success this season.
But all is not lost! This squad is beatable - just ask UT Chattanooga. And they didn't have Makayla Epps at point. How can we beat UT on the road for just the second time since TB Arena opened?
- Unyielding defense: during the first 20 minutes of the Mississippi State game the Cats played their BEST defense of the season. If we can play that way for 40 minutes today the Vols will really struggle to make their offense work.
- Effective ball movement/handling: 18 TOs against State was still 8 too many, and at least half of these were due to silly mistakes. Play fast, but not too fast.
- For the kajillionth time this year, HIT FREE THROWS: We hit 60% Thursday and a truly horrid 43% in the first half. We cannot leave that many points on the floor in a game that will be this tight.
- Smart shooting: It's hard to get much better than the 60% we shot in the first half against State, but sustaining that will be key.
- The ONLY quibble I had with Thursday's game was how much one player had to carry the squad. Every Wildcat needs to play out of their minds today if we want the W.
The Cats are now sitting in 3rd place within the SEC and a win today will help ensure we get that first round bye in Little Rock. It would also give the Cats the statement win they need to help their overall seeding in the NCAA tourney, which may get us OUT of UConn's bracket. I hate to say the season rests on a single game, but this one will have a huge impact on how we end the year.
I know we have a few members making the trip to Knoxville, and hope you travel safely and scream your lungs out for those of us who aren't there. Tipoff is at 3 PM Eastern on ESPN2. Until gametime - GO BIG BLUE!