4 keys to victory: Kentucky vs Tennessee part 2
Kentucky dominated the Vols in the first meeting but it will be tough to repeat that performance in Knoxville. The stakes are high because this game will be huge for either teams hopes of being a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It is also a key battle for the top spot in the SEC standings which is currently a 3-way tie between the two teams and LSU. If the Cats are going to return to Lexington with their biggest road win of the season, these are their keys to victory.
- EJ and Nick have to come ready for war– Last season Richards had 9 points and 8 rebounds against Tennessee in Knoxville, so he is capable of playing against their bruisers. It will be the fifth time that he has faced them which should help him understand how he must play against them. EJ Montgomery had 6 points and 4 rebounds against the Vols in limited minutes during the first game this season. If Kentucky could just get those same numbers from the duo on Saturday it would go a very long way towards having a chance to win. Even with a healthy Reid Travis, this game was going to be hard for the Cats to win. Without him it becomes that much tougher, unless Nick and EJ can step up in a big way. Grant Williams will try to use his strength to bully them around the basket but perhaps they can off set that with their length. There is no doubt that production from Nick and EJ is the biggest key to a Wildcat win tomorrow.
- PJ Washington has to play like the SEC player of the year- He dominated the Vols in Rupp this year but it is not going to be easy to do again. Tennessee chose not to double-team PJ and it burned them over and over. I expect them to change that approach in a big way, especially with Reid out of the lineup. They will double PJ every time he gets the ball in the paint or when he puts it on the floor. That will make PJ’s passing and decision making very important on Saturday. He has to anticipate the double and be ready to find the open man. That could result in easy shots around the basket for Nick and EJ or it could mean open 3’s for Herro, Johnson, Hagans and Quickley. The key is for PJ to be ready to make the pass and for his teammates to be ready to shoot the ball when he finds them. Defensively PJ will have to guard Grant Williams a lot more than he did in the first meeting because Reid was his primary defender. If PJ is going to have a shot to be the SEC player of the year, he has to have a big game on Saturday. More importantly, Kentucky needs him to be that player so they can have a chance to win the game.
- Tyler Herro needs to continue his hot streak- He did not shoot the ball well against the Vols in the first game but he had a tremendous all-around game including 13 rebounds. His ability to step up and have his best games on the road has been well documented. He seems to thrive on hostile road environments and Saturday should be the most rowdy crowd he has faced yet. He is playing the best basketball of his young career and is coming off his best game of the season. I think the Cats need to get 20 points from Tyler on Saturday if they hope to win. He is built for games like this and it would honestly surprise me to see him shoot the ball poorly. I am not saying he is going to drop a Jodie Meeks game on the Vols in Knoxville but I have a sneaking suspicion that he will play very well on Saturday.
- Slow down Jordan Bone- He was one of the few bright spots in first game for Tennessee. Ashton Hagans has to do a better job at making him uncomfortable as he tries to initiate their offense. On the other side of the ball, Ashton needs to make him work by attacking him off the dribble. Bone is more of a scorer than Hagans but whoever wins the all-around match up between the two will likely win the game as well.
Those are just some of the main things that can help Kentucky come away with their first win in Knoxville since 2015. The Cats will be an underdog in Vegas when the line comes out but they have beaten the odds a few times this season. The crowd will be fired up and ready to beat Kentucky. The Vols are also ready to prove that they are still the best team in the conference. My gut says that the Cats will play well and it will be a close game from start to finish, but they will come up just a bit short in the end. The final score will be 74-72 but the Cats will get a shot at revenge in the SEC tournament. I will add that a win by Kentucky would be absolutely huge for their NCAA tournament seed and it will not shock me in the least.