Wildcats Hoping to Slow High-Flying Volunteers

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Watching tape of his team struggling to stay in front of Florida in a loss to the Gators on Saturday night made Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie "want to throw up."

Gillispie might consider sneaking a bottle of antacids onto the sideline Tuesday when the Wildcats host No. 3 Tennessee.

These are heady days for the high-flying Volunteers (16-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference). Tennessee's ranking is the highest in school history. The Volunteers lead the conference in nearly every major offensive category and have the kind of depth -- 12 players average at least 10 minutes per game and nine are averaging at least five points per contest -- that used to be Kentucky's trademark.

Not anymore.

Instead, the Wildcats (7-9, 1-2) have become largely a three-man show. Guard Ramel Bradley has played every minute of Kentucky's last four games while guard Joe Crawford and forward Patrick Patterson have combined to miss just 24 minutes over the same span.

It makes for weary legs, though Gillispie doesn't buy into the notion that his team's few elite players are wearing down.

"I think the only time that you ever get fatigued is if you let your mind allow you to become fatigued," he said.

Besides, the Wildcats point out that they were able to stage spirited second-half comebacks in tough losses to the Gators and Mississippi State.

"I think we're showing some fight," Crawford said.

They'll need it against the Volunteers, who have become much more than just senior guard Chris Lofton, though the native of Maysville in northern Kentucky rarely passes on an opportunity to show the Wildcats what they missed when they decided to let him head south.

Lofton is averaging 19.2 points per game during his career against Kentucky and has been even better in Rupp Arena. He is averaging 24 points in two games there, including a 31-point outburst two years ago.

Though Lofton's scoring and 3-point shooting percentage have dipped this season, he's done other things to compensate. He's on pace to set a career-high for assists and has become a better defender.

"I think a lot of people just view him as a shooter, but I think he's a very, very complete player," Gillispie said.

One who gets plenty of help from his teammates. Tennessee's deep bench -- the Volunteers' reserves scored 26 points in a win over Ohio State on Saturday -- allows coach Bruce Pearl to wear other teams down with a suffocating pressure defense that is forcing 20.8 turnovers a game.

"They're probably the most athletic team top to bottom that we've faced," Gillispie said. "We've got to do a good job of having a better pace on offense."

It means trying to get to the basket after beating the pressure rather than simply breathing a small sigh of relief after getting to the frontcourt.

"We've settled too many times for just getting the ball across halfcourt," Gillispie said. "We're way too slow. We've got to be more of an attack mode and take the ball more to the basket."

It will be a delicate balance for the Wildcats. They don't have the firepower to match Tennessee shot for shot, but if they don't take advantage of the few opportunities beating the pressure will provide, it won't matter.

"We're just going to try and get back and not let them get the quick open 3s that they want to take, the quick baskets," Crawford said. "I think we've been doing a good job of slowing the pace down and not letting them run like they want to."

For all the steps the Volunteers have taken under Pearl, they know the hot start won't matter if they can't keep it up. This is a rivalry that the Wildcats have owned over the years. Kentucky leads the series 139-64, including a 28-4 mark at Rupp Arena.

"It's a big challenge for us," Tennessee guard JaJuan Smith said. "A lot of teams don't win in Rupp Arena. We're just going to try to be one of the few."

A victory would further cement Tennessee's ascension to the top of the SEC while the Wildcats can hardly afford to fall further back in the pack.

"I don't think Kentucky has been in this position in a long time," Crawford said. "But we've got to look at the positive. If we win, it can change our season around."

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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