Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky needs a win over Tennessee for boost heading into Big Dance

Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari gives instructions to his team during its win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday at the Scottrade Center.
Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari gives instructions to his team during its win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday at the Scottrade Center. aslitz@herald-leader.com

As John Calipari says, the outcome won’t mean much when it comes to Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show on TBS, but Kentucky would benefit from beating Tennessee in the SEC Tournament title game.

Confidence is the reason. Tennessee swept the Cats this season, winning both regular-season games for the first time since the 1998-99 season. The Vols overcame an eight point halftime deficit to beat UK 76-65 in Knoxville in January, then edged Kentucky 61-59 at Rupp Arena in February.

A third straight loss to the Vols could sap the confidence Calipari’s young club has earned here in St. Louis. As the No. 4 seed, it played lock-down defense to beat Georgia 62-49 on Friday. Then Saturday it rode Wenyen Gabriel’s spectacular shooting show -- the sophomore was a perfect seven-of-seven from three-point range -- to an 86-63 smashing of Alabama.

True, Georgia was the tournament’s No. 12 seed, playing its third game in three days. Its coach, Mark Fox, was fired Saturday. True, Alabama was the No. 9 seed, playing its third game in three days.

But coming off an 80-67 loss in the regular season finale at Florida last Saturday, and playing without the services of ace rebounder Jarred Vanderbilt, Kentucky brought plenty of doubts to the conference tournament. Many of those have been alleviated.

Beating Tennessee won’t be easy, however. The Vols tied with Auburn for the conference regular season title. As the No. 2 seed in the tournament, they edged Mississippi State 62-59 on Friday before thrashing Arkansas 84-66 on Saturday.

The Vols shot 57.1 percent from the floor against the Razorbacks. Rick Barnes’ team made 11 of its first 12 shots. It connected on 11 of 17 three-pointers and went 17-of-20 from the foul line.

“First half,” said Barnes, “we arguably played the best basketball we have all year.”

Jordan Bone, a 6-foot-1 freshman guard, made all seven of his shots in the first half on the way to 17 points. He finished with 19. Teammate James Daniel was three-of-four from three.

To finally beat the Vols, Kentucky must first take care of the basketball. The Cats committed 16 turnovers in the game in Knoxville and 15 in the game in Rupp, compared to just seven assists.

Kentucky has done a much better job of taking care of the basketball in this tournament. It committed a season-low five turnovers in the win over Georgia and 10 against Alabama, compared to 20 assists.

The Cats will also have to do a better job on the boards. They were outrebounded by Tennessee in both regular season games. UK’s hot shooting Saturday (64.3 percent) disguised the fact the team had just one offensive rebound in 19 opportunities for an offensive rebound percentage of 5.3 percent, by far the lowest in the Calipari era.

Having won six of its last seven, Kentucky has climbed to 19th in the latest kenpom ratings. UK is now 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Tennessee is 11th in the kenpom ratings. The Vols are ranked 41st on offense, but third on defense. Only No. 1-ranked Virginia and Cincinnati have better adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

So, knocking off Tennessee will be a tough task for the Cats. A win, however, would provide quite a boost heading into the Big Dance.

Wenyen Gabriel shot 7-for-7 on threes and matched his career high with 23 points, sending Kentucky past Collin Sexton and Alabama 86-63 Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.

Kentucky forward Kevin Knox talks about the defense after UK’s 86-63 win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament.

KENTUCKY VS. TENNESSEE

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis

TV: ESPN with Karl Ravech, Dick Vitale and Laura Rutledge

Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

UK Radio Network affiliates

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