Death by depth

Many opponents complain that playing Kentucky at Rupp Arena is like playing 5 against 8, since the officials tend to give the Big Blue every close call.

Tuesday night's Tennessee-Kentucky game may be more like 9 against 8, though, because of the Vols' amazing bench strength. In addition to the five starters, the Big Orange gets significant contributions from reserves Ramar Smith, J.P. Prince, Ryan Childress and Brian Williams.

That quartet combined for 38 points – nearly half of Tennessee's total – in an 82-75 defeat of Xavier back on Dec. 22. The same foursome outscored South Carolina's bench 25-5 on Jan. 12 and blew away Ohio State's bench 26-0 last Saturday. The four Vol reserves also outrebounded Buckeye backups 17-4.

Basically, Tennessee's deep bench is putting its opponents in deep trouble. That's a major reason the Vols boast a 16-1 record and No. 3 national ranking – highest in program history – in the latest Associated Press poll.

Head coach Bruce Pearl said Saturday's Vol-Buckeye game was a perfect example of "the advantage of playing nine," adding: "Ohio State played very, very well. That's a very talented basketball team but they're short maybe one body."

With just one day of rest following a Thursday night defeat of Vanderbilt, Vol starters clearly ran out of gas in the second half vs. Ohio State. Fortunately for the home team, Tennessee's reserves more than picked up the slack.

"We fought through fatigue," Pearl said. "We were the more tired basketball team. You could see it at the start of the second half and you could see it with our rotation. But nine guys was the difference.

"Look at the productivity we get off our bench. We got 26 points off our bench and double-digit rebounds. I think that was a real key."

Senior guard JaJuan Smith would not concede that the Vols were gassed on Saturday but readily admitted their depth was the difference in the game.

"You've got to give Ohio State a lot of credit," he said. "They shut us down. They made us look fatigued but we were not fatigued. We used our bench. We're deep right now and we fought through it."

Tennessee is 7-0 this season in games decided by 10 points or less, routinely outplaying opponents in the closing minutes of tight contests. The two most likely explanations are as follows:

One, the Vols are fresher at the end of games because they substitute so frequently. Two, the Vols are more confident at the end of games because they KNOW they are fresher."

"I think it's both," Smith said. "We've been there, done that. We've got eight or nine guys that can finish the game for us, and we're fresh at the end."

Tennessee isn't the only NCAA team to use a nine-man rotation, of course. What separates the Vols is that their bench offers quality, as well as quantity.

"Most teams are seven deep," Ramar Smith said. "We're nine deep, and we don't lose nothing off the bench. We really don't lose nothing off the bench because everybody plays hard."

They'd better play especially hard Tuesday night at Rupp. Going 9 against 8 projects to be a lot tougher than going 9 against 5.

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