Billy Ball

Some things in sport are just inexplicable. The Tennessee Basketball Vols are a prime example.

Florida has won two national titles in the past 3½ years under Billy Donovan, yet the Gators are 1-6 against Bruce Pearl and the Vols during that span. Tennessee's only loss during this stretch came at Gainesville in 2007, with All-American Chris Lofton sidelined by a sprained ankle. The last two meetings in Knoxville saw the Big Orange romp 104-82 in 2008 and 79-63 in 2009.

Florida has a great program and a fine coach. For some reason, though, the Gators struggle mightily against Tennessee. It's inexplicable.

The Vols can relate. They've experienced the down side of the equation against Kentucky, today's opponent in Lexington (1 p.m. tipoff on CBS).

Under Pearl Tennessee is 40-12 against the rest of the SEC in regular-season games but 3-4 against Kentucky. Half of Pearl's four SEC home losses have come at the hands of the Big Blue, even though the Wildcats have played more like pussycats the past few years – suffering 13 losses in 2005-06, 12 in 2006-07 and 13 in 2007-08.

Current UK head coach Billy Gillispie seems to have Tennessee's number, much as Pearl seems to have Florida's number. Gillispie's record against the Vols is just 2-1 but the way he has compiled the record is most impressive.

Consider:

- The Vols were 16-1 and ranked No. 3 nationally when they got their first look at Gillispie in January of 2008. Though unranked and struggling, his Big Blue squad shocked Tennessee 72-66 in Lexington.

- Vol fans figured the Big Orange would make the Cats pay dearly in the rematch at Knoxville last March, especially since star center Patrick Patterson would miss the game due to injury. Instead, the nationally top-ranked Vols had to scratch and claw to eke out a 63-60 triumph against Gillispie's outmanned but determined Wildcats.

- Coming off four pre-conference setbacks and an 85-68 blowout loss in their SEC road opener at LSU, the 2008-09 Cats appeared to be easy pickin's when they rolled into Knoxville Jan. 13 to face No. 24 Tennessee. Three hours later, however, Gillispie's troops rolled out of town after putting a 90-72 beat-down on the Vols – the most lopsided home-floor loss of Pearl's tenure at Tennessee.

"Billy does a great job game-planning," the Vol coach said. "He understands offensive strengths and weaknesses, and does a good job of taking those things away."

This year's Wildcats, like last year's, play sound fundamental basketball and rarely beat themselves.

"They're very, very well prepared," Pearl said. "They're physical. And, because they're the best rebounding team in the league, they don't give you a lot of second-shot opportunities."

The Wildcats don't give you a lot of inside looks, either. Tennessee had to launch 23 shots from 3-point range in the earlier meeting, connecting on just six.

"They make you beat them from the perimeter, and we are a very inconsistent perimeter-shooting team," Pearl noted. "Our interior offense is better, and Kentucky's defense does a really nice job of taking our inside stuff away."

Living up to their nickname, the Wildcats are tenacious on the backboards and on defense. They limited UT to 37.9-percent shooting and won the rebound battle 39-32 in the Jan. 13 meeting.

"They're the best defense and rebounding team in the league," Pearl said. "They really make it hard on you to score. They're a tough matchup for us."

A "tough matchup" is right. If Kentucky holds serve today at Rupp Arena, Gillispie will boast a 3-1 head-to-head record against Pearl ... the same guy who holds a 6-1 head-to-head record against Billy Donovan.

Inexplicable.


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