Five things about Kentucky’s next opponent, the Tennessee Volunteers:
1. The Vols were surprisingly impressive in non-conference play
Picked to finish 13th out of 14 SEC teams by the collected genius of the media, the Vols made a mockery of those prognostication powers during the non-conference season.
They were 9-2 heading into SEC play. They beat No. 18 Purdue in the Battle 4 Atlantis. They led Villanova by 15 before losing 85-76 to the Wildcats in Atlantis. They finished that trip with a win over North Carolina State.
Back in the states, they won at Georgia Tech and at Wake Forest. They led North Carolina late before falling to the visiting Tar Heels.
After dealing with nine new players on his roster last season, it appeared that third-year coach was head of his program-building schedule after going 15-19 and 16-16 his first two seasons in Knoxville.
And then the SEC season began
2. The Vols will be in desperation mode on Saturday night
Tennessee led Arkansas almost the entire way before coughing up the lead in the end and suffering an excruciating 95-93 overtime loss to the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling, Tennessee led Bruce Pearl and Auburn by 14 points before losing 94-84. It was Pearl’s first win in Knoxville since being fired as UT’s coach after an NCAA scandal.
So after a 9-2 start, the Vols are now 9-4 overall and 0-2 in league play. They can ill afford to drop to 0-3 with a homecourt loss to their border rival. They need a win. Now.
Kentucky-Tennessee are always intense affairs, especially in Knoxville, but that may be even multiplied given the stakes on Saturday.
3. Tennessee has had trouble holding leads
If you’ve stuck with this post until now, perhaps you have noticed a trend. Tennessee can build considerable leads against good opponents, but the Vols often have trouble holding those leads.
“They’ve lead in every game they’ve lost by at least nine,” said Mike Wilson of the Knoxville News Sentinel on my preview podcast. “That includes North Carolina and Villanova in the non-conference. They were up 14 against Auburn on Tuesday. They were up by nine with four minutes to play against Arkansas.”
Barnes said this week he believes his team is immature. Up big on Auburn, it started taking bad shots. On the road at Arkansas, it made bad decisions down the stretch against the Razorbacks’ pressure.
As Wilson points out, Tennessee is young. Not as young as Kentucky. No team is as young as the Cats. But the Vols have plenty of freshmen and sophomores on their roster.
“It probably shows itself most in those late-game situations,” said Wilson, adding that the Vols have just not been able to put teams away.
4. Grant Williams can be tough to defend
Listed at 6-foot-7, the sophomore from Charlotte leads the Vols in both scoring and rebounding. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Williams scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in Tuesday’s loss to Auburn. He scored 22 points in the win over No. 18 Purdue back on Nov. 22. He had a 20-point game in the loss to then No. 5 Villanova in Atlantis.
Often compared to Charles Barkley for his style of play and physique, Williams is listed at 241 pounds. He was recruited by Harvard and Yale before picking UT.
“My mom works for NASA. She’s an electrical engineer,” Williams told the News-Sentinel last season. “So academics came first for her, as well as myself. It’s been throughout my family; my grandparents, my dad, all of them. The fact that I had Ivy league schools recruiting me kind of had a cloud over everything. It put me in a different category, which made me feel, not special, but honored, I would say.”
5. John Calipari and Rick Barnes are old buddies
Both products of the late Howard Garfinkel’s famous Five-Star camps, Calipari and Barnes have long been friends. And Calipari hates playing friends, though he said when he loses to Barnes he can feel happy for him. With other coaches, not so much.
Tennessee is the fifth stop for the 63-year-old Barnes. The Hickory, N.C. native went 20-10 in one season at George Mason before moving on to Providence, just two years after Rick Pitino departed. Barnes went 108-76 in five seasons before being named the head coach at Clemson.
After going 15-13 his first season, Barnes took the Tigers to three straight NCAA Tournaments, including the Sweet 16 in 1997. That caught the attention fo Texas, which hired him in 1998.
Barnes took the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament in 16 of his 17 seasons in Austin, going 402-180. His 2002-03 team reached the Final Four. His 2005-06 and 2007-08 teams reached the Elite Eight. After that, however, Barnes went just 3-3 in the NCAA Tournament prompting the school and coach to part ways after 2015.
Landing in Knoxville, he was just what the Vols needed. After Pearl’s controversial firing, UT fans never quite took to Cuonzo Martin’s style of play. When Martin left for California, ex-Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall was hired, but NCAA violations committed at Southern Miss, his previous job, pink-slipped Tyndall in Knoxville after just one season.
Barnes is experienced, a good coach and a good representative of the program. He’ll have Tennessee back in the NCAA Tournament, maybe even this season.
Tennessee basketball 2017-18