Tennessee’s season just might hang in the balance on Saturday when it plays host to the 17th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (12-2, 2-0 SEC).
It’s still a bit too early to completely write off the Vols (9-4, 0-2 SEC), but dropping the first three conference games after such a promising start would not bode well for a team with NCAA tournament aspirations. Disappointing losses at Arkansas and at home against a Bruce Pearl-led Auburn team have dimmed those hopes a bit, but Tennessee still controls its own destiny in terms of postseason play. The first step in the long trek back the Big Dance? Taking care of business in a home game against Kentucky.
The good news for Vols fans is that it may not be quite as difficult as it sounds. Tennessee has won two in a row against the Wildcats in Knoxville despite John Calipari’s teams racking up only seven conference losses across those two seasons. Something happening twice in a row isn’t necessarily a pattern, but it’s encouraging that the overmatched Volunteers can take on a superior team at home. What’s even more encouraging for Vol Nation is that this year’s version of the team is the best yet under Rick Barnes, and it’s going up against a Kentucky team that doesn’t look particularly terrifying.
When Tennessee has succeeded this season, the success has come thanks in large part to an active and effective defense. When that defense struggles, so does the team. In wins, the Vols have allowed an average of just over 62 points per game. In losses, that number balloons to 88. Whether it’s a lack of effort or concentration that’s causing that — or if better teams are simply more equipped to handle a defense that is at times overaggressive — there’s a definite trend: the defense is the driving force behind this team’s successes and failures.
Containing Kentucky is a tall order, as the Wildcats have five players averaging double figures on the season. It’s hard to stop that many guys — plug one leak and two more spring open. Sooner or later, that dam is bound to burst. Barnes just needs to make sure his team manages to hold strong through the entire game by not take its foot off the gas pedal in the second half.
Still, for all of Kentucky’s talent, the team hasn’t been overly impressive this season. 12-2 is a great record, but six of those wins were by single digits, including two conference victories by a total of eight points. There’s plenty of talent in Lexington, but that doesn’t make the team unstoppable. If Tennessee can force the young Wildcats into committing turnovers or taking bad shots, this game could go down to the wire.
Even with classes not yet in session, the Vols should boast a competitive home-court advantage that should help build an early advantage. Kentucky’s talent will be enough to keep Tennessee from running away with the game, and the second-half woes that have hurt the Vols all season will continue on Saturday afternoon. Grant Williams will put in a good all-around performance, but it won’t be enough to keep his team afloat against a superior opponent.
Kentucky 84, Tennessee 77