I am 24 years and slightly over four months of age. I have known what Tennessee basketball was since age 8 (Buzz Peterson’s first season). Something I haven’t fully appreciated over that span of time is Tennessee’s successes when they do happen. It certainly feels like they should happen more often. It certainly hurt a lot to lose the 2009 SEC title game to a mediocre Mississippi State team. However, it felt worse knowing that Tennessee had been to the SEC title game once in my 24-plus years, and they lost to an NCAA Tournament 13 seed.
My mom was eight years old when Tennessee last won the SEC Tournament. I was -14. Rick Barnes was barely out of college. It doesn’t matter. They’re back now, they’ll be a small favorite, and the team they’re playing is a team they’re 2-0 against in 2018. Better yet, a loss for Tennessee doesn’t feel as damaging as it did in 2009. That year, a win probably would have gotten Tennessee off of the 8/9 seed line and perhaps have sent them to the Round of 32. This year? It would be a major surprise if Tennessee fell below a 3 seed regardless of the margin of defeat.
Of course, I don’t care to write this about a defeat. 39 years is more than long enough to wait for a real conference championship. Being the best team of the regular season is fine. Being the best in the postseason is what’s remembered. All other members of the 1979 SEC have won it since. Tennessee hasn’t. It’s time to change that.
They’re gonna go to the rim to score
Kentucky’s Saturday game against Alabama was an anomaly in several ways. They only attempted 42 field goals. 18 of those were threes, 12 of which were makes – their best percentage since February 2016. Only 11 of their attempts came at the rim, a season low. That last one’s pretty important, because going to the rim is what Kentucky does best and does most. Nearly 40% of their attempts are layups, dunks, or tip-ins. 25 of their 61 attempts from the field on Friday against a tough Georgia defense were as such, and they hit 15.
Likewise, Kentucky will try to push Tennessee early and often down low. Of their 97 field goal attempts against the Vols through two games this year, 37 came at the rim, hitting 25 (67.6%). That can’t happen tomorrow if Tennessee hopes to win, though it would be rather surprising if Kentucky is able to hit 12 threes again – they’ve hit double digits from three just three times all season. If Tennessee can perform well enough here and avoid foul trouble as best they can, they’ll be in great shape.
Stuff the pick-and-roll, again
As I mentioned on Friday, Tennessee has the SEC’s best pick-and-roll defense. By chance, PNR is Kentucky’s best aspect of their underwhelming offense, ranking fourth in the SEC and top 50 nationally in unadjusted efficiency. Tennessee has done well against this so far, limiting Kentucky to a 12 of 32 (37.5%) performance on field goal attempts derived from the PNR, including 4 of 14 (28.6%) from three. That’s exceptional. Tennessee has gotten a bit lucky on the three-pointer part – nine of those 14 attempts were classified as “unguarded”, and Kentucky hit just two of them – but Tennessee’s perimeter defense has blossomed beautifully over the last month, so.
Crash the (defensive) boards
This goes without saying. Despite Tennessee being 286th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage and Kentucky 7th in offensive rebounding percentage, Kentucky’s posted a total of nine offensive rebounds in the two games against the Volunteers. They’ve posted nine or more offensive rebounds in 23 individual games this season. For whatever reason, Tennessee’s had the secret sauce against Kentucky so far on the boards, and it proved to be the difference when the Vols visited Rupp Arena in February.
Strangely mediocre in transition
Kentucky has a top 20 defense, blocks a ton of shots, and weirdly has the third-best three-point defense despite allowing a ton of them every game. (More on that later.) It makes sense that they rank very highly in most things defensively as such. However, whether it’s youth, inexperience, or a lack of attention, they’ve been supremely average in transition. Kentucky ranks just 185th in unadjusted Points Per Possession (PPP) allowed in transition nationally, because they allow plays like the one above. There’s no reason for Lamonte Turner to leak out behind Kentucky’s defense like that given the previous play, yet…he just does.
In the two games against Kentucky, Tennessee got behind their defense for seven layups or dunks in transition off of 11 attempts, or 5.5 per game. The average team against Kentucky this year picked up 4.9 of these attempts per game, hitting on 59.3% of them. That’s nice, but I care more about the fact Kentucky hands the team a shot at a shot: only 10.9% of transition possessions ended in turnovers for Kentucky opponents. That ranks 340th nationally, because the average is about 14.9%. Kentucky already struggles to force turnovers in half-court defense. Make it harder on them by rushing to the other end on a missed shot.
What’s the deal with the three-point defense, anyway?
Kentucky guards a good amount of catch-and-shoot threes – 63.8% – though it’s not nearly as high as Tennessee’s 68+% that they’ve displayed over the last month-plus. Of course, what matters most is the made three-pointer percentage: 29.7%. As previously noted, that’s #3 in the nation. How?
Well, it’s two-fold: they’re obviously very lucky, but they’re very good on the perimeter regardless. On unguarded catch-and-shoot threes, Kentucky has allowed opponents to shoot just 32.4%. Let me remind you: these are three-pointers when no opponent is within four feet of the shot. These are open-to-wide-open attempts that normally see a 38.5% return.
To be fair, though, Kentucky is forcing opponents to shoot only 29.3% on guarded catch-and-shoots. That’s pretty exceptional, and I think it has to do with the fact that only one of their rotation players comes out at under 6’5″. It’s a uniquely weird defense to play against, because everyone has long arms and can block your shot. So: it isn’t, to me, an elite three-point defense…but it’s still really, really good.
The motion offense is built for this
How do you beat Kentucky without getting hot from three or having a significant advantage in turnover margin? Cuts and screens. Guess what offense is literally built around cuts and screens? The motion offense.
On plays immediately derived from cuts or screens – meaning the first action after was to shoot – Tennessee went 19 of 35 from the field, including a very pleasing 11 of 14 at the rim. (On all other shots, Tennessee went 28 of 72. And, as a caveat, they only shot 4 of 14 from three on these plays. But whatever.) These were especially beneficial for the two most post-oriented players on Tennessee’s roster, Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams, who shot a combined 9 for 10 off of these plays. Cuts and screens are where Tennessee can overcome Kentucky’s athletic advantage, because they’re unquestionably a smarter team.
I don’t need to spell it out for anyone reading this: this, simply, is an opportunity that cannot be wasted. You’re telling me Tennessee has a chance to win the SEC Championship for the first time in 39 years by beating their biggest rival for a third time in one season? It’s almost too perfect. I love it.
The game will most likely be decided by Tennessee’s ability to protect the boards, Kentucky’s interior efficiency, and Tennessee working Kentucky’s interior defense with a variety of cuts and screens. If any of Williams, Alexander, or Schofield pick up their second foul in the first ten minutes, commence worrying. If they don’t, feel better. Kentucky isn’t going to shoot 12 of 18 from three for another year, Wenyen Gabriel will never look like a future NBA player again, and Tennessee probably won’t shoot 88% from three in a half again this year. It’ll be less exciting than both games yesterday.
If Tennessee wins, it won’t matter. And if you get to say “the Tennessee Volunteers are your SEC Champions,” you won’t care how you got there or if it matched up with this article one bit. Tennessee, 71-69.