Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats take on Tennessee but will the final 4 minutes reveal?

Nick Richards of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots while defended by John Fulkerson (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Nick Richards of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots while defended by John Fulkerson (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

The motto for the Kentucky basketball team continues to be what will happen in the final four minutes?

Another prime time game for Kentucky basketball tonight, an introduction that used to peak excitement but this season only seems to showcase how the Wildcats falter in the closing 4 minutes of action.

12-4. 534. ESPN. 5-11. Kentucky +4. 8 PM. Saturday, February 6. 528

There is no sense in beating the dead horse of games that have slipped away including Wednesday night’s collapse against Missouri being the latest example.

Kentucky’s Keion Brooks was asked about the closing minutes of games.

"“I think it’s a mixture of we’ve got a little bit of bad luck, a little bit of we’re turning the ball over, and we also don’t get the best shot we can get late, down the stretch. But we’re getting at it. It’s just something we’ve got to continue to work at, keep pushing through, and hopefully this weekend we can play better the last four minutes and come out with a W.”"

Tonight is the heated hated and bitter rivalry game against Tennessee.

The Vols (12-4, 5-4) entered the season with the highest expectations of winning the Southeastern Conference, but find themselves just a single game ahead of Kentucky (5-11, 4-5) in sixth place.

These teams have split the past 16 games dating back to 2013 after Kentucky dominated them in years prior. Tennessee has won three of the past four matchups.

Both of these teams right now mirror themselves in a state of offensive ineptness as neither can shoot well or run a half-court offense. This has plagued Kentucky from game one.

Tennessee’s woes are more of a roller coaster ride of what thrill or terror lies ahead.

Just three days removed from topping No. 15 Kansas 80-61, the Vols bumbled their way to a 52-50 loss to an 8-8 Ole Miss team that Kentucky won’t play until the regular-season finale.

A week prior Tennessee lost two straight games to Florida by 26 points and by nine points to Missouri. The same Tiger team that beat Kentucky 75-70.

Kentucky has the same issues as the Vols do on offense: they can’t shoot or manufacture a meaningful half-court set.

This team so badly misses Ashton Hagens who handed out 12 assists himself against the Vols last year. The last Wildcat to light it up against Tennessee was Jodie Meeks way back in 2009 when he went off for 54 points including 10 three-pointers and 14 free throws.

Why Tennessee will win

The simplest reason why Tennessee comes away the winner is the Kentucky team of every call-in show frustration, post-game reflection, and simple eye test of watching them fold under late-game pressure.

Kentucky doesn’t know how to win or how to stop a team from seizing the final minutes and walking away from the game the victor.

The Vols have one thing Kentucky does not have – a reliable go-to player.

That player is a guy who has burned Kentucky game after game and seems to have been wearing Orange forever. This is 6-foot-9 215-pound redshirt senior John Fulkerson. He shoots high arching turn around jumpers in the lane after backing players down in the block.

Red flag warning!

Kentucky will need body after body on him with the physical play since he averages 11 points and 6 rebounds a game. He and other bigs have been harsh all year on the Wildcats

Kentucky assistant coach Jai Lucas addressed this to the media on Friday.

"“Well, it’s something that is always a security blanket. When you can go to somebody and you can throw them the ball or kind of spread the floor and let them drive, create, get fouled. Especially like you were saying, that last four minutes of the game, that’s really when it’s the biggest. Ours right now is a game-by-game thing. It may be Olivier (Sarr) one game when he’s got it going. It may be Davion (Mintz) when he’s making jump shots or in a few games it may be Keion (Brooks Jr.). It’s just kind of a feel thing."

Tennessee doesn’t make mistakes and forces a lot of turnovers at just over 16 per game. This bug-a-boo has been detrimental to Kentucky night in and night out.

Why Kentucky will (could) win

This is always the million-dollar question and is more like why Kentucky can win and not will win.

Tennessee lacks consistency just as the Wildcats do and here is hoping a disturbing trend for the Vols shows up in Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

The Vols are a good free-throw shooting team hitting 76 percent when they win games, but for some reason it a frigid 59-percent in games they lose. Ideally, Kentucky would cut down the fouls and keep them off the line altogether, but watch closely the percentage they actually make should they step to the line. And they are even worse on the road at 56.8 percent.

Tennessee has the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year in Yves Pon who averages 4 blocks per game, but the Wildcats may just have the equalizer in Isaiah Jackson who averages 3 swats per game. If Jackson stays on the floor he can compete with Pon, but Lance Ware will be counted on for extra help.

Brandon Boston Jr. could again be in the spotlight or in the shadows. If he shows Kentucky always has a shot, but when he disappears so goes their chances.

Toss up factor

Neither team has a true point guard with Devin Askew being John Calipari‘s favorite despite a slew of mistakes and poor decisions both handling the ball and inability to score points.

Davion Mintz looks more the part of the true point guard but he is the most effective shooter and scorer especially after his 18 point performance against Missouri. Moving him to the point may limit that scoring, something Kentucky desperately needs.

Tennessee rotates guards around and also struggles with Santiago Vescovi running the show. He can bring it up the court and sees players but also dribbles into packs of defenders time and time again just like Askew. Victor Bailey sometimes runs the point but he and Vescovi are much better shooters and scorers from the No. 2 spot.

Forcing Vescovi to drive into mistakes will be key for Kentucky and not allowing him to launch shots as 79 of his 109 attempts have come from behind the arc.  Kentucky has struggled mightily to defend 3 point shooters so who can get a hand in his face time after time all game. He averages 8.7 points per game.

So this looks like the toss-up of who will make the fewer mistakes trying to orchestrate their respective offenses. Askew won’t get you any points but if you allow Vescovi to knock down points the edge quickly goes to Tennessee.