By Jimmy Hyams
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Kentucky beat Tennessee at Rupp Arena.
Only three times in history have the Vols beaten a ranked UK team in Lexington. And only six times since 1970 has UT won at Kentucky.
But it was the manner in which the Wildcats disposed of Tennessee that created a concern.
Kentucky was clearly the more physical team during the 86-69 demolition Saturday night of the nation’s top-ranked team. That roughhouse play bothered the Vols.
And keep in mind, Tennessee is a physical team.
One weakness for UT the past month is lack of depth on the front court.
If Kyle Alexander or Grant Williams gets in foul trouble, Tennessee is in trouble against a team with a solid front court. And Kentucky has a solid front court.
The Wildcats’ PJ Washington had his way inside in scoring 23 points as the Vols man-to-man defense wasn’t up to the task and defenders too often allowed Washington to score going to his right.
There were three stats coming out of the game that revealed why Tennessee was trounced.
- Kentucky dominated the boards 39-26. That difference displayed UK’s effort and strength. UK freshman guard Tyler Herro had 13 rebounds – he was averaging 4.0 — go with 15 points.
- Tennessee’s three best outside shooters were a combined 1-for-17 on 3s. Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden were 0-for-11. Admiral Schofield was 1-for-6. Some of those shots were contested. Some were wide open. UT won’t beat many teams when that trio shoots that poorly from beyond the arc. The three were 10-for-36 overall from the field.
- Shooting percentage. Kentucky hit 54.7 percent, UT 40.7 percent. The Vols were a respectable 17 of 34 on 2s (50 percent) but hitting 7-for-25 on 3s hurt the overall effort. A 14 percent difference in overall shooting percentage is tough to overcome.
So where does Tennessee, now 11-1 and tied for first in the SEC, go from here?
Remember, last year, Alabama blasted the Vols 78-50 but UT recovered to win five of its last six SEC games to share the share the conference title.
And Tennessee started 0-2 in the SEC last season but rebounded.
This is a veteran UT team with mature players. It can still run the table in the SEC. But its remaining SEC schedule is more difficult that LSU’s or Kentucky’s.
Tennessee figures to be challenged when it goes to LSU and Ole Miss, and when it hosts Kentucky and Mississippi State, then finishes at Auburn. Its remaining SEC opponents are 41-31 in league play.
LSU’s remaining SEC foes are 32-40 with only UT having a winning record.
Kentucky’s are 39-33 with UT and Ole Miss having a winning record.
Tennessee could go 17-1 in the SEC, but it might lose two or three SEC games.
The challenge ahead is to better handle a physical opponent, shoot better from 3-point range and find inside depth in case Grant Williams or Kyle Alexander gets hurt or in foul trouble.
One other thing: Tennessee has been in only two single-digit games in the past 17 contests.
It wouldn’t hurt to get more battled tested late in games before NCAA tournament play begins.