Even Vol head coach Donnie Tyndall says the 2014-15 Wildcats are “right there in the talk for being the most talented team ever assembled,” and he is not the only college coach expressing that sentiment.
The Big Blue is 25-0 (12-0 SEC) with an average victory margin of 21.8 points. Its roster features nine McDonald’s All-Americans. Its starting lineup Saturday at South Carolina included three players who stand 6-feet-10 or taller. The Cats outrebound foes by 7.6 per game and allow an SEC-low 56.2 points per game.
“They have great players,” Tyndall said. “They probably have nine, maybe 10 guys that will have a legitimate shot at playing in the NBA.”
Whereas Kentucky’s talent is overwhelming, Tennessee’s talent is underwhelming – probably the weakest it has been since Kevin O’Neill’s final Vol squad went 11-16 in 1996-97. As a result, tonight’s game shapes up as a clear-cut mismatch. That raises an intriguing question: Would a Vol win be the greatest upset in program history?
Maybe. Below are one man’s rankings of the five unlikeliest Tennessee upsets of the past 50 years:
Feb. 24, 1993 saw a bad Big Orange squad coached by Wade Houston stun a second-ranked Big Blue squad coached by Rick Pitino 78-77 in Knoxville. Sixteen days later Kentucky avenged itself by crushing the Vols 101-40 in the SEC Tournament at Lexington on its way to the Final Four. The loss closed Tennessee’s season with a 13-17 record that included a 4-12 SEC mark.
On March 5, 1966 Ray Mears’ Vols shocked Adolph Rupp’s top-ranked Kentucky team 69-62 in Knoxville to cap a 19-8 season that included a 10-6 record in SEC play. Tennessee got no postseason bid. Conversely, “Rupp’s Runts” reached the national title game before losing to Texas Western in a game that provided the basis for the movie “Glory Road.”
Dec. 6, 1969 saw an unranked Mears’ squad stun No. 1 South Carolina 55-54 at Columbia in the season opener. That Gamecock team went on to finish 25-3 (14-0 in ACC play) but lost in the conference tournament and failed to make the NCAA Tournament field. Tennessee went on to finish 16-9 overall and 10-8 in SEC play.
Jan. 10, 2010 saw the Vols host top-ranked and defending national champ Kansas. Tennessee was ranked 16th but given little chance because head coach Bruce Pearl had just suspended four key players – Tyler Smith, Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins. The short-handed Vols stunned the visitors 76-68 but Kansas proved to be a bit overrated, eventually bowing in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament.
On Feb. 27, 1984 Don DeVoe’s unranked Vols dumped No. 4 Kentucky 63-58 in Knoxville. That Big Orange squad went on to finish 21-14 overall with a modest 9-9 league record. The Wildcats bounced back to reach the Final Four.
Given the huge talent gap between the two teams, defeating Kentucky tonight probably would rank second among Tennessee’s all-time upsets – right behind the Wade Houston-beats-Rick Pitino miracle of 1993. The 2014-15 Wildcats are so imposing physically that merely scoring against them is a daunting challenge.
“You emphasize driving the ball because it is so important to get paint touches,” Tyndall said. “But, at the end of the play, you have to finish over three 7-foot guys.”
Even with its imposing size Kentucky exhibits dynamic quickness in transition. A turnover or long rebound is just about guaranteed to produce two Wildcat points.
“You have to take care of the ball,” Tyndall said. “You’re better off getting a 35-second shot-clock violation and they have to take it out of bounds than take a bad shot or turn it over (because) now they’re playing in the open floor."
As good as they are, the Wildcats don’t win every game in dominating fashion. They have had a few close calls on their way to 25-0.
“The teams that have played them tough have, first and foremost, made perimeter jump shots and at least kept the rebounding numbers close,” Tyndall said. “The third thing is, you have to limit your turnovers. If you don't shoot it well or you turn it over where they can play in transition, then you have no chance.”
As if the odds aren’t long enough already, the Vols are on the wrong side of the momentum pendulum. Kentucky is riding a 25-game winning streak. Conversely, Tennessee stands 14-10 overall (6-6 SEC) after losing five of its last seven games.
“Through the conference schedule teams become even more aware of your weaknesses and your deficiencies,” Tyndall said. “I think our team is being exposed in some areas that maybe early on we did a good job of hiding or at least camouflaging a little bit.”
Of course, Kentucky has a deficiency that can be exposed, as well:
The Wildcats’ second five isn’t quite as dominating as their starting five.
MEMORABLE VOL UPSETS
March 5, 1966: Tennessee beat Adolph Rupp’s top-ranked Kentucky team 69-62 at Knoxville to conclude the Vols’ season with an 19-8 overall record, 10-6 in SEC play. The Big Blue reached the NCAA title game before losing to Texas Western.
Dec. 6, 1969: Tennessee beat No. 1 South Carolina 55-54 in Columbia in the season opener. That Gamecock squad went on to go 25-3 (14-0 in ACC play) but missed the NCAA Tournament field. UT went on to finish 16-9 overall and 10-8 in SEC play.
Jan. 22, 1977: No. 14 Tennessee beat No. 3 Alabama 102-93 in Knoxville but that Tide team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, either.
March 5, 1977: No. 11 Tennessee beat No. 2 Kentucky 81-79 in Knoxville en route to a 22-6 overall mark and a 16-2 SEC record. That Wildcat squad was beaten in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Jan. 5, 1980: Tennessee beat No. 2 Kentucky 49-47 in Knoxville. The Vols went on to finish 18-11 overall, 12-6 in the SEC. That UK squad lost in the Sweet 16.
Jan. 9, 1982: Tennessee upset No. 3 Kentucky 70-66 in Knoxville en route to 20-10 record, including a 13-5 SEC mark. That Big Blue squad lost its NCAA opener.
Feb. 27, 1984: Tennessee beat No. 4 Kentucky 63-58 in Knoxville en route to 21-14 record, 9-9 SEC That UK squad advanced to the Final Four semis.
Feb. 24, 1993: Tennessee beat No. 2 Kentucky 78-77 in Knoxville en route to 13-17 record that included a 4-12 SEC mark. UK ultimately went to the Final Four.
Feb. 15, 2003: Tennessee beat No. 4 Florida 66-59 in Knoxville. Buzz Peterson's Vols went on to finish 17-12 overall, 9-7 SEC. The Gators went on to lose in the NCAA’s Round of 32.
Jan. 21, 2006: Tennessee beat No. 2 Florida 80-76 in Knoxville. That underrated Vol squad went on to finish 22-8 overall, 12-4 SEC. Florida went on to win the national title.
Feb. 27, 2007: Tennessee beat No. 5 Florida 86-76 in Knoxville. UT ultimately finished 24-11 overall, 10-6 SEC. Florida bounced back to win the national title again.
Feb. 23, 2008: No. 2 Tennessee beat a 26-0 and top-ranked Memphis team 66-62 in Memphis. The Big Orange went on to finish 31-5 overall, 14-2 SEC. The Tigers advanced to the NCAA title game before losing in overtime to Kansas.
Jan. 10, 2010: Even with four players suspended, No. 16 Tennessee beat top-ranked and defending national champ Kansas 76-68 in Knoxville. The Jayhawks went on to lose in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament.
Feb. 27, 2010: No. 19 Tennessee beat No. 2 Kentucky 74-65 in Knoxville. The Big Orange went on to finish 28-9 overall, 11-5 SEC. The Big Blue reached Elite Eight.
Dec. 11, 2010: No. 11 Tennessee beat No. 3 Pitt 83-76 at Pittsburgh. UT faded thereafter and finished 19-15 overall, 8-8 SEC. The Panthers fell in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.