Rupp Arena is historically referenced as a premier venue in college basketball. Some consider it the Mecca of the sport. It has a reputation of being a vacuum: a trouble spot that sucks opponents into a black hole. So many visitors get drawn into the abyss, like trekkers venturing through the dark hollows of Appalachian Kentucky.
On Saturday, a familiar foe with an unprecedented resume travels to the war zone to take on the Kentucky Wildcats.
The No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers will try to defeat their arch-rival in Lexington for a second straight time. That hasn’t happened since the combined years of 1976 and 1977. Last year marked the first time a Tennessee squad swept Kentucky in a season series since Jerry Green defeated Tubby Smith in 1998-99.
Since then, Kentucky has had the best of Tennessee more often than not. In terms of accolades, there is no comparison between the two schools. The Wildcats have hardware to boast their success in college basketball. In fact, they have the highest win percentage of any Division I school of all-time.
So what does this mean for coach Rick Barnes and Tennessee?
It’s a chance to add more to what is already a historical season. The Vols (23-1, 11-0 SEC) have held the No. 1 ranking for the fourth straight week: an unprecedented feat for the program. They are on an all-time winning streak. To make it 20 wins in-a-row, Tennessee will have to achieve something that hasn’t been done in 42 years. Based on their pedigree since Barnes’ arrival in Knoxville, they have more than enough tools to make it happen.
Here is a foolproof plan that will give The Deacon his fifth win against Kentucky in only eight tries as the Vols’ coach:
Do Your Thing, Fam
A trip to Rupp often means battling two forces. As if John Calipari and his squad of talented youngsters aren’t enough, the referees have a reputation of siding with the host. No. 5 Kentucky comes into Saturday hovering around the top 10 percent of teams in the country in personal fouls per game. The Wildcats average 16.2 PFPG overall and just 14.6 at home. Tennessee averages a modest 17.5 PFPG, but that number jumps up to 19.2 on the road.
Much of the concern for personal fouls revolves around the Vols’ star Grant Williams. The reigning SEC Player of the Year has fouled out four times this year. He also has three other games in which he has committed four personal fouls. The good news for Tennessee is that his personal foul average is down a notch this season. Williams averaged 3.3 fouls per game coming into the season. He is averaging 2.8 during his junior campaign.
Tennessee can ill-afford to go without its star player, but that doesn’t mean it should be wary. If Williams can make to the first TV timeout without a foul, it’s a big win for the Vols. Tennessee’s best course of action is to play its brand of basketball. That means Williams touches the ball a ton and defends one-on-one. It’s a big reason why it has 23 wins in mid-February.
On offense, Kentucky will undoubtedly go after Williams. But the junior has the wherewithal effectively guard the likes of PJ Washington and Reid Travis. The Wildcats are good, but they don’t have Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins dominating the floor anymore. For the Vols to win, Grant needs to be Grant.
Presence In The Paint
On the defensive side, Calipari has his work cut out. As apt as Williams is at committing a foul, he is even better at drawing them. Couple that with the fact that he can affect the game beyond scoring, and suddenly the Wildcats are at odds. In Tennessee’s game against South Carolina on Wednesday, Williams didn’t even make a trip to the free-throw line. The forward only had eight points on field goal eight attempts. Yet, he was still super efficient by facilitating and disrupting. The Charlotte native also produced nine rebounds, seven assists and three blocks. As long as Williams consistently gets the ball around the block or elbow, it won’t matter if he scores 20 or not.
The rebounding gap between the two teams may seem significant, but Tennessee makes up for its lack of offensive rebounds with some of the most efficient offensive production in college basketball. While the Vols are just outside the top 100 in offensive rebounding, they shoot a robust 51.2 percent overall, good for second in the country. Kentucky is a top-25 rebounding team with 39.2 RPG.
Barnes’ squad isn’t going to grow into an elite offensive rebounding team overnight. Throughout much of any game, they’re not instructed to crash the glass due to their proficient shooting. Many of their offensive rebounding opportunities are unbalanced, as a bulk of the players retreat for transition. On the other end, the Vols do take pride in their impressive 25.8 defensive grabs per game.
The key for Tennessee in the paint will be the defensive play of Kyle Alexander. The senior has shown flashes of elite defensive ability. He is averaging just under two BPG, but the 6-11 forward has posted four or more blocks four times this season. Against Tennessee’s toughest competition — Kansas and Gonzaga — he just had one combined. However, in Tennessee’s tight battle with Alabama, the lengthy Canadian posted five. If Alexander and Williams can disrupt the paint to the tune of five blocks combined, it will be enough lift to provide a safeguard in the paint.
Use Your Bone
Tennessee’s biggest surprise of the season is the production from its point guard. Jordan Bone has been nothing less than sensational. Kentucky has a stellar point guard of its own in Ashton Hagans, who like Bone, has seen an uptick in production as conference play has progressed. The freshman is averaging 9.6 PPG and 5.4 APG in SEC play. Bone is averaging 12.4 and 6.7 in the same categories, respectively.
The biggest advantage Bone has in this match-up is his veteran presence. He has elite speed and amazing vision. His patience allows him to utilize those tools and rip defenses apart at times. Bone is No. 1 in the conference in assists, averaging 6.5.
Hagans leads the SEC in steals per game. His league-leading average of 2.1 SPG reflects his feisty play. The freshman is quick, but he may have met his match in Bone.
Even though Bone is averaging just two turnovers per game, he has 11 combined in the past three contests. The Nashville native is due for a statement game. Bone is 1 for his last 10 from 3-point range, a stretch of three games. In the two games prior to that stint he was a combined 7-of-9 against South Carolina and Texas A&M.
The Hagans and Bone battle will quietly be one of the best of the day. But the Vols point guard has an edge. Look for a parlay of two 3-pointers made, eight assists and only two turnovers. That will be the formula to win this match-up, and it may not even take that.
Big Shot Lamonte
It seems like eons since fans and media were questioning Lamonte Turner’s health, both from a physical and mental standpoint. But it wasn’t that long ago. It was as early as last month. That’s how good Tuner has been.
After getting acclimated to the rigors of SEC play in the opener against Georgia, the shooting guard has been more than reliable. He is shooting 46.8 percent from the field on the season. But the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year is on a tear the past six games. He is shooting a staggering 59.6 percent from the floor and 48.4 percent from beyond the arc in that stretch. It’s safe to say Big Shot Lamonte is back.
The Vols guard drilled a 3 right in front of Quade Green with about 30 seconds remaining to put Tennessee up for good in the win at Rupp last year.
The Vols don’t necessarily need a last-minute bucket from Turner, but they need him to put up shots. He has connected on at least two 3-pointers or more the past seven times in which he has hoisted a minimum of five attempts. Turner, along with Jordan Bowden, needs to get looks on the perimeter. For Lamonte, he needs at least five attempts from distance and five from inside the arc. The past two times the guard eclipsed 10 FGA, he scored over 19 points.
Give Scho’ The Go
Speaking of big shots, one of the Vols premier play-makers has some of his own this season. Admiral Schofield made his mark early in the season with two brilliant performances against Gonzaga and Memphis. The senior hit a game-winning shot against the Bulldogs and followed that up with a 29-point, 11-rebound performance against the Tigers. He also hit a go-ahead runner against Alabama in conference play during the game’s final moments.
Despite moments of stardom, Schofield saw his share of struggles last month. There was a five-game stretch where the wing went 3-of-22 beyond the arc. He was struggling with his jump-shot even within the perimeter. The Vols’ star found success working his game inside-out. Starting against West Virginia, his shots from close range went up. Schofield has put up 11 2-point attempts or more in four of the past six games. In the games he did not achieve that mark, he was 4-of-7 from 3-point range. The slash forward is 6 of his past 11 from distance.
This a good sign for Tennessee and a bad sign for everyone else. Since his 6-point performance at Vanderbilt, Schofield has been right on pace with his season average of 16.7 PPG. He has had success attacking the blocks and his jumper seems to be coming back. The key for Schofield is to get at least 15 field goal attempts. At least four of those need to be from beyond the arc.
Schofield has performed exceptionally well when facing the best competition. Against Louisville, Kansas and Gonzaga, he averaged 23.6 PPG.
The veteran leader seems to rise to the occasion. Barnes and company should be obliged to feed him while he’s hot. The Vols haven’t faced the best of competitors in conference play, but that’s about to change.
As if the odds weren’t stacked against them enough, the Vols are facing some hungry Wildcats. Kentucky is coming off a home loss to No. 19 LSU. There hasn’t been a Wildcat regime lose back-to-back at Rupp since the Billy Gillespie era: a span of one decade.
But if there was ever an opponent that could infiltrate Lexington and defy the odds, it’s this Tennessee team.
To pull off the feat, the Vols have to start out by playing their game. There is not a better seven-man rotation in college basketball. Tennessee has plenty of play-makers to go around. Their veteran leadership is unmatched.
The odds say the Vols are an underdog. Their prowess has shown otherwise. The real measurement between these two rivals will be revealed at 8 p.m. at Rupp Arena.