Coaches often speak platitudes about upcoming opponents, but Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall took his praise of Kentucky (25-0, 12-0 SEC) to the next level at his press conference on Monday as the Vols (14-10, 6-6 SEC) prepare to face the top-ranked Wildcats at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN).
“This week obviously (we face) the best team in America,” Tyndall said. “I just said this on our conference call, that it is arguably the best team to be assembled. I go back to one team I think is comparable, (and that’s) the team with Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson and that group at UNLV. This team here is right there in talk for being the most talented team ever assembled – I really believe that. They are really well coached. Coach (John) Calipari makes sure the right guys take the right shots. They guard you, so we have a huge challenge there tomorrow night.”
Only the rest of the season will ultimately judge where this loaded group of Wildcats truly ranks on the all-time level, but in terms of pure talent, Tyndall has a fair case that Kentucky is at an elite plateau rarely seen in college basketball.
The five-star littered roster has six players – center Karly Anthony-Towns, center Willie Cauley-Stein, forward Trey Lyles, center Dakari Johnson, forward Alex Poythress and guard Andrew Harrison – who are projected to go in the first 50 picks of the 2015 draft, according to NBADraft.net.
There could easily be more. It just depends how many of the Wildcats’ stars opt for another year in the NBA training ground that Lexington has become under Calipari.
So is there anything the Vols can do to win – or even make it respectable – against such a loaded squad? Tyndall has buried himself in the film room looking for answers. There isn’t an easy one, or else at least one of the 25 teams the Wildcats have played this year would’ve found it. But Tyndall saw a few commonalities among the teams that have played Kentucky closer than others.
“I have watched every conference game they have played in over the last two days – every single game,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is that the teams that have played them tough have, first and foremost, made perimeter jump shots, at least kept the rebounding numbers close and in some cases even and the third thing is you have to limit your turnovers.
“If you give up second shots, which means you are going to lose the rebounding battle or you don’t shoot it well where they are able to play in transition or you turn it over where they can play in transition, then you have no chance.”
And while any team in the nation is going to struggle with Kentucky this season to some extent, it’s a particularly daunting task for the Vols because of their lack of size. That’s a bad recipe against a UK squad that will throw at least six elite post players at the Vols that have more size than anybody on UT’s active roster. Kentucky goes 6-foot-6, 6-6, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-0 in its projected starting five. The Vols will likely counter with a look that goes 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, 6-6 and 6-8.
Tennessee has been exposed, at times, the past two game against center Damian Jones from Vanderbilt (16 points, nine rebounds) and forward Jordan Mickey (20 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks) – both NBA prospects. Now the challenge will be doubled or tripled at any point during the game, and the Vols will be forced to battle with their undersized and under-experienced front court.
Expect the Vols to pack their zone in as much as possible, but that will also leave Kentucky’s talented shooters open on the perimeter. Tyndall normally likes his odds down low when his players are a touch undersized, but he realizes the big problem that Kentucky can present if it sends in several of its giants at one time.
“It has been a concern all year,” Tyndall said. “The way we play lends itself to protecting the rim a little bit with our zone. We collapse and double the post a lot of times with our forward on the ball side of our zone, which isn’t necessarily tricky, but it makes them kick it out and gives teams some perimeter opportunities. For the most part, we have done a pretty good job containing big guys with the exception of Mickey the other night – just dominated the game. It is a concern…
“(If opponents) are 6-8, 6-10, and our guys are 6-4, 6-7 – as long as they play hard for the most part, I am comfortable we will win enough of those battles against Kentucky,” Tyndall said. “It really is a whole different ball game with five guys 6-10, 6-11. They aren’t just big stiffs. They are all really, really athletic guys.”