Wildcats on deck

Only once since 1980 has Tennessee beaten Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Only three times since the 23,000-seat arena was built in 1976 has UT won in Lexington.

The Vols have come within double figures only once in the past 15 years, losing by three points in 2002. They've also lost by 101-40 and 74-40 and 92-60.

Lexington has not been kind to the basketball Vols.

This year might be different. This year, Tennessee comes in at 16-3 and leads the SEC East with a 7-1 record. Kentucky has struggled, losing at home to Vanderbilt and Alabama and beating South Carolina and Arkansas and Central Florida by a nose.

Bruce Pearl's team is playing with great confidence. It will have a chance late to win. Will it make the key play at the key moment?

We'll find out Tuesday night with a 7 p.m. tip-off on ESPN.

Tennessee has been terrific in several areas this season. The Vols lead the SEC in turnover margin, assist-turnover ratio and steals (10.7) per game, which ranks in the top five in the nation.

Three Vols – C.J. Watson (44), Chris Lofton (43) and Dane Bradshaw (35) -- rank among the SEC's top 10 in steals. Compared to last season, that's a stunning turnaround. Last season, the Vols averaged 7.3 steals per game. Watson led the team with 58 and Lofton had 40. No one else had 25.

Tennessee will have at least four players with more than 50 steals this season and six with more than 25. Check this out: UT has 203 steals this season, the opponents' 111.

Lofton's total is surprising, considering he is thought to be a one-dimensional, perimeter shooter.

``Lofton is just sort of crafty,'' Pearl said. ``He sits back and he does a good job off the ball picking his spots. He's patient, just like a (rifle) shooter. You know how those marksmen sit in a tree and make shots from anywhere. He's sort of a marksman defensively, sort of sits back and hides in the bushes and all the sudden, he jumps out and there he is making big plays.''

Like the play he made against Florida. With Gator forward Corey Brewer leading a 2-on-1 break and the Vols up by two in the closing seconds, Lofton leaped to steal a pass and fed Bradshaw for a game-winning layup on the other end.

``Lofton is a little faster, a little stronger, a little quicker, a little better defender, a little better off the bounce than what you give him credit for,'' Pearl said. ``Those (steals against Florida) are not the plays that you think Lofton is going to make, but when the day is done, he's one of the leaders in steals in the SEC. I just think a lot of it has to do with him being a better athlete and being more crafty than people give him credit for.''

All those steals have helped UT force 19.6 turnovers per game compared to 14 last season.

Tennessee's press has helped lead to a number of steals. But there is a tradeoff. When opponents beat the press, they often find themselves with a fast-break advantage, and that has led to some high field-goal shooting nights against the Vols.

Tennessee is last in the SEC in field-goal defense, allowing opponents to hit 46.4 percent from the field.

Pearl was asked if he's rather force 20 turnovers and allow opponents to shoot 46 percent or force 10 turnovers and have opponents shoot 42 percent.

``I'd say turn them over 20 times,'' Pearl said, ``because a lot of times, turnovers aren't just about the number, it's where those turnovers occur. And for us, if we've turned them over 20 times, there's a chance the press was successful. And if we can turn you over in the press, we're close to scoring. So my guess, if you made me choose, I'd take more turnovers and a little higher shooting percentage (by opponents).''

The turnovers also can turn over the momentum of a game.

``Yes they can, especially at home,'' Pearl said. ``We turned over LSU 17 times in the first half (at Baton Rouge) and got nine shots blocked, so we didn't take advantage. Against South Carolina (in Knoxville), we turned them over only 11 times, but every one of those seemed to lead to a big possession or a big bucket.''

Forcing turnovers at Kentucky will be difficult. The Wildcats average 13 turnovers per game. They can use a four-guard lineup of Rajon Rondo, Patrick Sparks, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, which makes them hard to press.

The Wildcats also have a finisher on the other end if Kentucky beats the press – 6-10 Randolph Morris, who is averaging 12.8 points and 5.0 rebounds since having his 14-game suspension lifted in early January.

The guard matchup is intriguing. UT's backcourt, considered one of the nation's best, combines to average 31.4 points per game. Kentucky's Rondo and Sparks average 21.7. UT's guards also shoot much better. Lofton is making 41.4 percent of his 3-point attempts while Watson is making 45.1. Rondo is hitting 30.4 percent and Sparks 37.4

UT's guards are also much better at the foul line. Lofton is making 91.2 percent and Watson 86.2 percent. Rondo and Sparks both made fewer than 65 percent.


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