Things are getting interesting in the SEC with not only the regular-season title on the line, but possibly a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee has been in a minor funk, but returns home and will hope to play off its crowd, similar to what Kentucky did in that first Game.
The big difference between this Game and the last one is that Reid Travis won’t be playing. Travis only had 11 points in that first meeting, but his defense was part of the reason the Wildcats had such an easy time, limiting Grant Williams to just two shot attempts inside the arc. In that Game, Kentucky grabbed an early lead and never looked back after scoring the first 14 points of the second half. But now in Knoxville without Travis on the cOurt, things will undoubtedly be different.
Williams, Admiral SChofield and Jordan Bone were the only three Tennessee players to Scoremore than Four points and that probably won’t happen again considering it has six guys that average at least eight per Game. That includes LAmonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, who combined to go 0-for-11 from three. Kentucky plays great three-point defense, but expecting that number again may be a stretch. Either way, Williams is going to have an easier time no matter how UK defends him. PJ Washington doesn’t have the bulk, Nick Richards doesn’t have the quickness and EJ Montgomery doesn’t have the experience. In fact, Montgomery and Richards, the two guys replacing Travis, combined for six fouls in 15 minutes in that first meeting. If those guys get into foul trouble, which was the case against Arkansas on Tuesday, Kentucky will be put an immediate hole. Elsewhere, UK doesn’t exactly have a player to match SChofield, who brings more muscle and about 30 more pounds than Keldon Johnson. Tennessee’s backcOurt may have some trouble with the length of Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro, but the absence of Travis changes everything for guys like Williams and SChofield.
On the other end, Kyle Alexander may have an edge for the first time in a while because neither Montgomery nor Richards are considered offensive threats. It doesn’t help that Washington, Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder (15.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg), may exclusively be matched with Williams, who can body him down low but can also mark him on the perimeter. It’s the same issue for Johnson, who is an excellent rebounder at the three spot, but he had just Four in the first Game because of SChofield. To pull an upset, it could again fall on Herro for the Wildcats, who had a career-high 29 points on Tuesday. While he could have another good Game, he probably won’t shoot 9-for-10 from the field again.
Kentucky played like a chainsaw going through butter without Travis in the win over Auburn, but the real problems in the paint showed in the Game against Arkansas and Daniel Gafford. With Williams one of the best players in the country, he’ll likely take advantage of whatever Kentucky throws at him. Richards and Montgomery are big bodies, but it’s hard to see them being enough to win this Game on the road. Plus, the Volunteers want to match the beat down that they received in the first meeting.
Our Pick – Kentucky +2.5