The lone matchup of ranked teams on Tuesday’s schedule, a matchup between No. 15 Tennessee and No. 24 Kentucky, was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination. In the end the outcome came down to late-game execution, with Rick Barnes’ Volunteers making the plays that needed to be made on both ends of the floor.
Lamonte Turner buried a three to give Tennessee the lead with 26 seconds remaining. That was followed by a forced turnover and an Admiral Schofield dunk, and the Volunteers won by a 61-59 final score.
It’s Tennessee’s first season sweep of Kentucky since the 1998-99 season, and after ripping off three straight blowout victories the visitors called upon their toughness to pick up a critical road win.
Picked to finish 13th in the SEC’s preseason poll, Tennessee has emerged as the league’s second-best team behind No. 8 Auburn. And in a year that has seen the conference as a whole put forth an improved product on the court, the rise of the Volunteers and Tigers is the biggest development.
Auburn was picked to finish ninth, and with the FBI scandal that saw the team lose an assistant coach and two expected starters even less was expected of the Tigers in the aftermath. But here they are, sitting atop the SEC with a 21-2 record and in the top ten of the national polls for the first time in over a decade.
So what would Auburn’s success have in common with that of Tennessee? Simply put, both teams have an incredibly firm grasp of who they are. The Volunteers aren’t a team that will beat opponents with finesse; they do it with a talented, experienced rotation that can get key contributions from both starters and reserves alike.
Against Kentucky, leading scorer Grant Williams finished with ten points but tallied just three official field goal attempts (making one). A player who enters a game averaging 16.2 points per game having that few field goal attempts would be a major issue for many teams to overcome. For Tennessee, not so much thanks to the likes of Turner and Jordan Bowden.
Turner came off the bench to score a team-high 16 points, and Bowden added 13 points to go along with eight rebounds and two steals. Admiral Schofield shot just 6-for-16 from the field, but in addition to scoring 12 points he chipped in on the glass with six rebounds. Kentucky’s front court length certainly impacted Williams’ shot opportunities around the basket, but Tennessee was able to receive contributions in other areas.
It wasn’t pretty offensively, but the Volunteers managed to do enough to supplement its work on the other end of the floor.
After shooting poorly early Kentucky’s issues with ball and player movement proved to be the biggest issue late. While Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s key turnover led to the aforementioned Schofield dunk, the freshman was responsible for six of Kentucky’s seven assists.
Also, on the play in question none of Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates did much to get into a position where a passing lane could come open for the point guard. The end result was his over-penetrating and getting caught up in multiple Tennessee defenders.
Will Kentucky be able to properly address its issues on the offensive end of the floor ahead of postseason play? That remains to be seen, and the team’s inconsistency is in large part a product of the lack of influential veterans. Sure Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones are both sophomores, but neither played a major role last season. With that being the case, there’s only so much those two can call upon when looking to help get the freshmen all headed in the same direction.
Tennessee doesn’t have that problem, and it’s a big reason why the Volunteers managed to leave Rupp Arena with the win.
And it’s also a big reason why this team is capable of doing even more as college basketball’s biggest month approaches.