By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari knows his team not only faces an emotional challenge rebounding from Tuesday’s overtime loss at Arkansas, but also a physical challenge when it hosts Tennessee Saturday.
Southeastern Conference coaches can vouch for Tennessee’s toughness, too.
“Tennessee has done a tremendous job and is playing tough basketball,” said LSU coach Johnny Jones, who lost 68-50 to the Volunteers. “They have a very balanced basketball team with a great bench as well. (Jarnell) Stokes and (Jeronne) Maymon are a great challenge.”
The two 6-8 Volunteers are combining for 24 points and 18 rebounds per game. Stokes had 15 rebounds in a win at LSU and Maymon 15 in a loss to Texas A&M.
“LSU is a terrific team and they beat ‘em really good,” Calipari said before noting the Vols were “really a physical team” every game.”Their guards are really active and long. Again, I watched about five minutes on the TV version, of LSU, and (Tennessee was) dominating. I mean, they were truly dominating. Their guards shot the ball and got to the lane, and their bigs did what they needed to do against (LSU center) Johnny O’Bryant’s a really good player, now. And so they are good.
“You got teams right now, we’re all trying to find ourselves, I think. That includes us. Absolutely includes us. We’re all trying to figure out, what are we and exactly how we have to play to give our teams a chance to win.”
Tennessee followed its impressive road win at LSU to open SEC play with a home loss to Texas A&M before beating Auburn Wednesday. Coach Cuonzo Martin thought his team was “passive” and “not locked in from start to finish” against Texas A&M.
“We did not get the production around the rim to be successful,” the Tennessee coach said.
He said the Vols count on Stokes and Maymon to offensive rebound whether that results in a shot for them, free throws or pass to an open teammate.
“We count on that a great deal,” Martin said. “Not just throwing the ball inside, but getting offensive rebounds. Jarnell should get five or six rebounds each half.”
Maymon missed last season with a knee injury, but Martin says he is all the way back.
“He just does not have the lift like he used to. He is still a good basketball player,” Martin said. “His game was not based on his lift but passing, defending and scoring around the rim. Some guys lose their lift and lose their game, but for him it is not such a big deal.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings thinks Kentucky is physical even though he’s not sure it is the most physical UK team he’s faced at Vanderbilt.
“I would say one of the most physical Kentucky teams we’ve played, yes. This is my 15th year, so you’d have to forgive me for having a little amnesia. I can’t remember all the way back to the first years that we played, so I don’t (know). They’ve had some physical teams over the years, but this is certainly a physical edition of their team. But whether or not it’s the most physical, I wouldn’t really be able to say,” Stallings said.
He says Kentucky is different on the perimeter than previous UK teams.
“They’re bigger on the perimeter, and I think that makes some of their drives more physical and things like that. They may not be as fast, they might not shoot as well as some of the other teams that they’ve had, but their guards are big and their wings are big. and they’re physical when they take it to the basket. Yeah, they’re physical in almost every spot on the floor and physical with size,” Stallings said.
Senior guard Jordan McRae leads the Vols in scoring at 18.3 points per game and guards Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson are both hitting over 41 percent from 3-point range.
“Those guys are doing a solid job,” Martin said. “They are shooting the ball better from the 3 than we have all season. For the most part the guards are playing well. We are actually playing some of our best defense in terms of numbers right now.”
His only concern has been not “taking care of the ball” in SEC play, a problem UK had Tuesday at Arkansas when it had 10 turnovers the first half.
“I hate losing, but I’m fine. You know what? Those kids did not quit,” Calipari said of the Arkansas loss. “We had a couple kids that didn’t play well. Willie (Cauley-Stein) didn’t give us much. I mean, he was a non-factor in the game. Alex (Poythress) was great. We had a bunch of turnovers early. I thought we cut it back a little bit as the game went on, but we had a bunch in the first half that, but I thought offensively we basically got what we wanted and they made the plays and rebounded.
“That’s the first team we’ve played that’s taken more free throws than us. Usually we take 20 more than the other team, so you got to give them credit.”