It was not even a little bit pretty, but Kentucky showed the heart and determination that coach John Calipari has been looking for as they snuck a 74-71 win in Baton Rouge on Wednesday night. With half his team suffering from the flu, Calipari got just enough out of his healthier players in the three point win. Next up is a clash of ranked teams on Saturday as No. 17 Kentucky travels to No. 23 Tennessee.
Here are the three keys to this one:
Jump on Tennessee early
The Vols may still be ranked in the top 25 at this point, but their play over the last couple of games has not been good. If the Wildcats can leave Knoxville with a win, then Tennessee will have opened SEC play 0-3 after putting together a nice run in the non-con part of their schedule.
The issue for Tennessee has been their inability to hold a lead. Ahead by double-digits against both Arkansas and Auburn, the Vols managed to find a way to give those games away. This is a team low on confidence – albeit one that will be buoyed by a sold-out crowd on their own floor – and it is this lack of confidence that Calipari has to exploit.
If the Wildcats are able to pull out to a lead early then it will be interesting to see if Tennessee has the desire to respond.
Keep SGA hot
After back-to-back 20+ point efforts against Louisville and Georgia, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander fought through a cold of his own to put up 18 points and dish out four assists against LSU on Wednesday. The freshman came off of the bench to play 32 minutes in the game and he was one of the players that Calipari looked to down the stretch against a talented Tigers team on their own floor.
Kentucky has not been good at winning games like this – especially early in the season – over the last few years. Calipari squads with far more experience have struggled on the road and the Wildcats had lost five out of their last six true road openers. SGA, however, was not having any of that history. He just continues to make plays and even as some of Kentucky’s other freshman options broke out of their slumps, he was still the go-to guy.
He will need to continue his current scoring and leadership streak against the Vols.
Win the rebounding battle
Tennessee may have got off to a strong start this season under head coach Rick Barnes, but a consistent theme for the Vols – even in their wins – has been an inability to rebound the basketball.
What was already a pressing issue finally undid Tennessee earlier this week when Auburn pulled down 22 offensive rebounds, outrebounding Tennessee 46-38 in total for the game. The Tigers were able to turn those 22 offensive boards into 28 second-chance points, a huge factor in their storming comeback and eventual 10 point overtime victory.
Rebounding is more about hard work and positioning than it is basketball talent. Kentucky has plenty of talent on the floor and it will be interesting to see if the ‘Cats can bring their lunch pail and outwork the Vols to put up a similar rebounding edge to the Tigers. If they can, then there is no reason that Kentucky shouldn’t make it two road wins in a row.