Jan 6, 2018; Knoxville, TN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (22) moves the ball against Tennessee Volunteers guard James Daniel III (3) during the second half at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee won 76 to 65. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Preview: No. 15 Tennessee vs. No. 24 Kentucky

For the second and final time this season, No. 15 Tennessee will square off with No. 24 Kentucky in a meeting of two SEC powerhouses.

Last time the two teams met, the Volunteers beat the Wildcats by 11 at Thompson-Boling Arena as Admiral Schofield went off for 20 points and 6 rebounds. UT outscored UK 47-28 in the second half and notched 23 assists on 25 made shots. Tuesday night’s contest tips-off at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

Keys To The Game (Tennessee)

  1. Get Grant Williams Involved Early: If the Volunteers want to start out on the right foot, they need to attack the interior early. Kentucky is giving up the 2nd-highest two-point percentage during conference play and is allowing opponents to shoot almost 54% within the arc. Volunteers forward Grant Williams, who is in the conversation for SEC POY, is averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game over Tennessee’s last two games on 54.2% shooting within the arc. Getting Williams going is of the utmost importance to UT if they want to win at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night.
  2. Lock Down Defense: Tennessee is ranked 6th in the NCAA in defensive efficiency for good reason. The Volunteers have allowed 65 points or less in 8 of their last 9 games. Forcing Kentucky to start firing from long-range early would serve to benefit Tennessee. The Wildcats are shooting an abysmal 28.3% from beyond the arc during conference play and besides Kevin Knox, don’t have any players who can shoot at a consistently high clip from deep on a night-to-night basis. Rick Barnes is no stranger to good defense.
  3. Spread Kentucky Thin On Offense: While Tennessee’s defense has been an important story this season, their tremendous passing is the true narrative. The Vols are averaging an SEC-best 17.2 assists per game and have the third-highest assist-to-field goals made ratio in the NCAA. Spreading Kentucky’s defense thin is the best way to attack their athleticism. The more one-on-one opportunities the better.

Keys To The Game (Kentucky)

  1. Make Your Free Throws: It’s called the charity stripe for a reason. During Kentucky’s three-game win streak late in January against Mississippi State, West Virginia and Vanderbilt, the Wildcats shot over 74% from the free throw line in each game. UK has shot under 70% in every single one of their losses this season. Against a team like Tennessee, easy points are hard to come by. Kentucky can get off to a good start by making the most of their opportunities at the line.
  2. Value The Basketball: The Wildcats turned the ball over at least 13 times in each of their 6 losses this season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 3 turnovers per game over Kentucky’s last 6 games, while Hamidou Diallo has turned the ball over at least twice in 5 of Kentucky’s last 6 games. Tennessee is forcing turnovers on 21.5% of possessions this year, which ranks 35th in the nation, which ranks 35th in the country. It’s not a key, but a necessity for UK to protect the rock on Tuesday night.
  3. Dynamic Duo: In the three games before Kentucky’s loss to Missouri on Saturday, Kevin Knox averaged 23.7 points and 7 rebounds per game on 57.9% shooting from the field and 61.1% shooting from beyond the arc. His ability to score is one of his greatest attributes, but he needs to get better at the free throw line, like most of his Kentucky peers. Knox is 2-8 at the charity stripe in the Wildcats’ last two games. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a former Florida commit, is Kentucky’s X-Factor. During SEC play, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 14.8 points, 4.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game on 44.6% shooting from the field. The 6’6″, 180-pound freshman guard is also a massive defensive asset and is currently ranked third in the SEC in steals per game (1.7 SPG). Gilegous-Alexander has shot under 50% from within the arc in only 3 of Kentucky’s 17 wins this season. It’s vital that Gilgeous-Alexander gets his shot going early if Kentucky wants to avoid a home-loss to Tennessee.

About Jake Winderman

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