UK's better; is UT?

Kentucky is a much better basketball team than it was a year ago. Tennessee needs to be better than last year, too. Otherwise, the Vols could be in for a humiliating evening tonight at Rupp Arena.

The Big Orange suffered a pair of lopsided defeats in 2008-09 to a Big Blue team that finished 22-14 overall and 8-8 in SEC play - bowing 90-72 in Knoxville and 77-58 in Lexington. The Wildcats are vastly improved in 2009-10, as evidenced by their 23-1 overall record, their 8-1 league mark and their No. 3 national ranking.

Tennessee, 18-5 overall and 6-3 in SEC play, is on track to post a better record than it did last year (21-13, 10-6). Whether the Vols have improved enough from 2008-09 to 2009-10 to hang with the frisky Wildcats tonight in Lexington is debatable, however. Asked earlier this week if the Big Orange is better than a year ago, UT's head coach hedged a bit.

"I don't know that you could say that," Bruce Pearl said. "A lot of it (improved record) is a function of the schedule. I think the second-half draw for us is much more difficult than the first-half draw."

He has a point. After playing five of their first eight SEC games at home, the Vols must play five of the last eight on the road. They already played - and lost - one of those second-half road games, getting hammered 90-71 Tuesday night at Vanderbilt.

Pearl conceded that this year's team defends better and rebounds better than last year's team, adding that "Those two things give us a chance to win."

Offensively, however, the 2009-10 team might be the weakest Pearl has fielded in his five years at the Big Orange helm. In league play the Vols rank ninth in scoring (69.3 points per game), seventh in field-goal percentage (42.5), 10th in 3-point percentage (30.2) and 11th in free-throw percentage (64.4). They are seventh in assists per game (11.89) and ninth in 3-pointers per game (5.44).

Some night's Tennessee's defense is so good that it offsets the team's offensive failures. That was the case when the Vols held Auburn to 30.4 percent shooting, Ole Miss to 34.4 percent and Alabama to 37.9 percent in winning Games 15, 16 and 17.

Since then, however, the Big Orange was trounced by Georgia 78-63 in Athens and lost twice to Vandy by decisive margins. So, which UT team shows up at Rupp Arena tonight is anyone's guess.

"Believe it or not," Pearl said, "it's too early to tell whether or not we're actually a better team."

Whether the Vols are better or not, they'll need to play better than they did against Kentucky last season. They allowed Jodie Meeks to go off for 54 points in the 18-point loss at Knoxville. In the rematch at Lexington UT went 8:03 before scoring its first point en route to a 19-point loss.

Can the Vols give the Big Blue a competitive game tonight? Certainly, their chances would be better if senior post Wayne Chism were 100 percent healthy. Bothered by a sprained ankle suffered in Tuesday's loss at Vandy, Chism's availability is listed as a "game-time decision."

If Chism can't go, Kentucky is likely to dominate on the inside thanks to 6-11, 260-pound freshman DeMarcus Cousins and 6-9, 235-pound senior Patrick Patterson. Cousins averages 16.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, Patterson 14.9 and 7.3. Cousins has posted seven consecutive double-doubles.

NOTES: Tipoff for tonight's game is 9 o'clock with television coverage provided by ESPN.... Kentucky leads the NCAA in rebound margin at 10.2 per game.... The Big Blue's leading scorer is celebrated freshman point guard John Wall, who averages 16.7 points and 6.6 assists per game. Joining Wall, Cousins and Patterson in the starting five are freshman guard Eric Bledsoe (10.7 points per game) and sophomore forward Darnell Dodson (7.4 points per game).... The Vols' 19-point setback last season at Lexington tied for the worst loss of Pearl's Tennessee tenure until the Vols fell 77-55 at Southern Cal earlier this season.

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