1. Any person who has watched Tennessee this season or even over the past few seasons knows that the two guys that make the Vols go are Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
Both players are absolute studs of collegiate players and can out-muscle almost any team in the country. Standing at 6'7" and 236 pounds, Grant Williams has been providing a tough presence in the post all season. Williams leads the SEC in points per game at 19.4, ranks sixth in the conference in rebounds per game at 7.4, while dishing out 3.5 assists, blocking 1.6 shots, and swiping 1.2 steals. Williams isn't a huge threat from the outside, going 9 of 30 on the year from three, but can definitely knock down the mid-range if left open. Admiral Schofield measures at 6'6" and 241 pounds, which is about as crazy of a listing as you'll hear for a college basketball player not named Zion Williamson. Starting at the "small" forward position, Schofield averages a fifth in the SEC 16.7 points per game, to go along with 6.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. What makes defending Schofield so tough is that he can be equally as potent using his strength in the post as he can using his skill beyond the three-point line. The senior is shooting 40.5% from three this season, which is top-10 in the SEC. Defending these two is so tough for any team. Kentucky would prefer to use Reid Travis' strength on one of them, but with them starting at the 3 and 4 positions, the most likely match ups are Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington. When Tennessee goes to a three-guard lineup, that's when Travis and Washington will be matched up with Williams and Schofield, respectively.
While the muscle in the lineup comes from the two guys listed above, the two starting guards for Tennessee have been superb as of late. Junior point guard, Jordan Bone, has developed into one of the top guards in the SEC. Averaging 13.2 points, an SEC-leading 6.5 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game, Bone can score at all-three levels and will be an incredibly tough on-ball match up for Ashton Hagans tonight. At the two guard position, Lamonte Turner is a 6'2" junior and who can fill it up on the jump shot. Turner averages 11.7 points, 3.5 assists, 2.3 boards, and 1.1 steals per game, while hitting 37.5% of his threes and 82.9% from the free throw line. Forcing tough twos for Turner is the key to taking him out of his game, as he'd much prefer to stay out on the perimeter than go in with the physicality and length in the lane. These two guards, along with Jordan Bowden off the bench, make Tennessee one of the better and underrated backcourts in the country. The Volunteers actually lead the country in assists per game, while having the second best assist to turnover ratio in the country.
On top of that, Tennessee commits the lowest amount of turnovers in the conference.
A lot of the teams that Kentucky has played this season have been powered by the three ball. However, tonight's game against Tennessee is far from that style. Tennessee scores the most points per game in the Southeastern Conference, but the Vols are down near the bottom of the conference in both threes made and threes attempted per game.
Translation for that is that Tennessee dominates the paint against nearly every team they play. While the obvious answer as to how Tennessee dominates the paint is in the strength of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, there is more to it than that. Both of Tennessee's starting guards are really solid at getting to the rim, and the Volunteers actually start 6'11" Kyle Alexander at the center position, giving them yet another big body to crash the boards and make plays at the rim. In the two games Kentucky lost to Tennessee last season, Rick Barnes' squad out-rebounded the Cats, as well as forced Kentucky into a hefty amount of turnovers. Coach Cal mentioned it this week, but it bears repeating, Tennessee won't beat themselves, so Kentucky is going to need to come out and punch them in the mouth if they want to pull off the upset.
Obviously, every one knows that Tennessee is ranked as the top team in the country at this point, and they've played an incredibly impressive stretch. The Volunteers have won 19 straight games, dating back to an overtime loss to Kansas on November 23rd. Tennessee is really good, but as the callers into The Paul Finebaum Show would say, "They ain't played nobody!"...well not as of recently, at least.
Since losing to Kansas back at the end of November, Tennessee has a win over a Gonzaga team that was working without a full roster, but then the strength of the Vols record goes downhill from there. Tennessee's SEC schedule is extremely backloaded, still having to play Kentucky twice, at LSU, at Auburn, and at Ole Miss. Ken Pomeroy even gave us this astounding stat on Twitter yesterday about their conference schedule thus far, "Tennessee’s conference strength of schedule has been easier than Santa Clara’s and Washington State’s," which, not to disrespect to those two teams, is a horrible look for Tennessee's strength of record. In fairness, Tennessee is just playing the schedule put in front of them so far, but there is definitely something to be said about them only beating a lot of below average teams, with some of the victories not even having been convincing. The fact of the matter here is that Kentucky is far more battle tested this season than Tennessee, which could prove beneficial down the stretch of the season and into March.
Since John Calipari took over in Lexington, Kentucky is 12-6 in games against Tennessee. After starting 9-2 against the Volunteers in the Coach Cal era, Tennessee has now won four of the last seven match ups, including sweeping the regular season over the Cats last season.
This Saturday will be just the second time in Rupp Arena history that Kentucky will play an SEC opponent in a match up in which both teams are ranked in the top 5. The other was back in 1994, when the #4 Cats hosted and eventually lost #3 Arkansas. In fact, this is actually the first time that Kentucky has played in a top-5 match up against an SEC opponent since taking on #3 Florida back in 2003.
Go Cats. Beat Volunteers.