Backcourt battle

Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl characterizes Kentucky's backcourt combo of Rajon Rondo and Patrick Sparks as "terrific," adding that Rondo is one of the SEC's top three guards and Sparks "has been a real key for Kentucky."

If the outcome of tonight's Vol-Wildcat game (7 p.m. tip-off at Rupp Arena) hinges on guard play, though, you've got to like the Big Orange's chances better than the Big Blue's.

Pearl won't go quite that far but he is willing to say that UT's guard duo of C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton "has played as well as anybody in the conference."

That may be an understatement. Consider:

Watson ranks second among SEC players in steals (2.32 per game), second in assist/turnover ratio (2.65 to 1), third in free throw percentage (86.2), fourth in scoring (15.7 points per game) and sixth in assists (4.32 per game). He would rank third in 3-point percentage (45.1) except he hasn't made enough treys to qualify for the SEC rankings.

Lofton ranks first in 3-pointers per game (3.32), third in steals (2.26 per game), fourth in scoring (15.7 points per game), sixth in 3-point percentage (41.4) and eighth in overall field goal percentage (46.2). He would rank first in free-throw percentage (91.2) except he hasn't had enough attempts to qualify.

Impressive? Sure. But the Vol duo's stats sound even better when matched against those of their UK counterparts.

Rondo shoots slightly better than Watson from the field (51.0 to 48.3 percent) but Watson is 14 percentage points better from 3-point range (45.1 to 30.4) and 23 percentage points better from the foul line (86.2 to 62.9). Watson has 14 fewer assists (82 to 96) but also has 24 fewer turnovers (31 to 55). The steals are a virtual dead heat (45 Rondo, 44 Watson) but Watson outscores Rondo by 2.2 points per game (15.7 to 13.5).

A comparison of the other two guards is even more clear-cut.

Lofton out-shoots Sparks by 6 percentage points from the field (46.2 to 39.6), by 4 from 3-point range (41.4 to 37.4) and by 27 (91.2 to 63.6) from the foul line. Sparks, who has begun playing the point lately, has considerably more assists (74 to 41) but also has twice as many turnovers (41 to 20). Lofton blows Sparks away in steals (43 to 13) and in scoring average (15.7 to 8.2).

Watson will try to break down Kentucky's defense tonight, while Lofton will try to skin the Cats from the perimeter. Both will try to ignite UT's transition game by forcing Sparks and Rondo into turnovers.

"They handle pressure well," Pearl said of the Big Blue duo. "I don't think full-court pressure is going to be a big factor for us in disrupting Kentucky in Rupp Arena."

Although he speaks highly of Rondo, Pearl wouldn't trade Watson for anyone in the conference.

"C.J. controls things out there," the Vol coach said. "There were times (last Saturday) when he wasn't on the floor or the ball wasn't in his hands that Ole Miss' ball pressure and their physical play was disruptive. But when he had the ball it was less disruptive."

Watson is a leading candidate for the SEC's Player of the Year award. Certainly, the Vols would struggle without him. As Pearl noted: "You hold your breath when C.J. goes to the ground."

If Watson and Lofton can outplay Rondo and Sparks, Tennessee's chances of winning are pretty good. If the Vols' 6-10 Major Wingate can contain UK's 6-11 Randolph Morris, the Vols' chances get even better. Pearl thinks Wingate will give Morris a good battle.

"I don't think Major has been given enough credit for what he's done defensively," the Vol coach said. "Major did a really good job with (Ole Miss') Dwayne Curtis and did a good job in the first half against (LSU's) Glen Davis. He did a good job against (Texas') LaMarcus Aldridge and the kid at Louisiana-Lafayette (Michael Southall)."

Wingate's head-to-head battle with Morris could be almost as crucial as the Watson/Lofton vs. Rondo/Sparks competition.

"That's a key match-up, no doubt," Pearl said.

Another key to the game will be the Vols' ability to neutralize 23,000-plus hostile Big Blue fans. Pearl had a quip ready when asked how could this be done:

"Well, I think our five players and the three officials are going to have to work hard together … the eight of us."

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