Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#1)

Lineup notes


  • The worst season in modern Kentucky history has led Coach Cal through the wilderness in finding a starting lineup. He’s tried seven in 16 games. He simply went back to the fourth one in their most recent game: Askew, Mintz, Boston, Jackson, Sarr.
  • A weird thing I kept noticing during Kentucky’s initial December run of suck was Matt Jones and the like clamoring for Kentucky to stop playing Sarr and Jackson together. On the surface, I totally get it. Neither can shoot! And yet: even after adjusting for luck and schedule, Kentucky’s defense is eight full points better per 100 possessions with both on the floor. (The offense is about three points worse.)
  • Predicting which players will be getting minutes is starting to become a fool’s errand. Sarr played 31 against Georgia but 27 combined in the game before and after. Jackson went from playing 31 combined against LSU and Alabama to playing 34 against Missouri. Dontaie Allen: 24 against Alabama, 7 against Missouri. Keion Brooks went from sixth man to starter to seventh man to starter back to seventh man.


  • Like I said after Kansas, Rick Barnes doesn’t really do many lineup changes unless it’s after a loss or an awful offensive performance. Tuesday was both, but it still seems like Vescovi, Springer, Johnson, Pons, Fulkerson is the most likely starting lineup.
  • For what it’s worth, I think that’s probably the right lineup…but I would consider giving Victor Bailey another chance. Yes, this sounds insane, and you are allowed to laugh; Bailey has been pretty bad at times for the last month. However: with Bailey on the court, Tennessee commits far fewer turnovers, has a much better Assist Rate, takes a higher quality shot on average, and is better on defense. Do all of these things relate back to Bailey perfectly? Not all of them, but Tennessee could stand to turn it over less.
  • I said this in the preview and I stand by it as I type: Rick Barnes has got to stop playing two of Fulkerson, Anosike, or Nkamhoua at the same time. And really, you can even sub in Pons for Fulkerson. Combined, about 25.6% of Tennessee SEC possessions have seen these lineups take the court. Combined, Tennessee is scoring 0.851 PPP offensively when one of Fulkerson/Pons and one of Anosike/Nkamhoua are on the court. It gets very slightly less bad when you regress for luck, but “less bad” in the sense that it’s a 0.9 PPP offense. I know that Tennessee’s offense has looked gross regardless at times this year, but stuff like this doesn’t help. Barnes has to stop it before it kills them in March.
  • Fourth bullet point in an already-giant post! If you expand this to non-conference play, all of these lineups combine to hit about 1.076 PPP, which is obviously not terrible. But remember: all but two of the non-conference games came against very much overmatched teams. We’re past that part of the schedule.

Key matchups

Isaiah Jackson vs. John Fulkerson. Pons is getting this matchup to start, but Jackson spends about twice the time playing at the 5. I would actually consider this somewhat similar to the Conner Vanover matchup for Fulkerson: you’re not going to out-jump this guy, so get crafty, draw some fouls, and make him work to keep you off the scoreboard. On the other end, this is all about boxing out and making Jackson go over your back for his treasured rebounds.

Brandon Boston, Jr. vs. Jaden Springer. At least I think that’ll be who draws the main matchup. Boston takes a ton of awful shots, but he and Springer both like to get to the rim, and Boston is a bit better at preventing turnovers. Springer’s challenge here will be keeping Boston out of the paint while simultaneously avoiding foul trouble. If that fails, you can toss Keon Johnson on Boston to pass the time, remembering fondly when it was Boston who was supposed to be the best freshman in the SEC.

Olivier Sarr vs…also John Fulkerson. Sarr will start at center, and Kentucky is simply a much better team when he stays on the court and plays well. Sarr can hit a 15-foot jumper and draws fouls very well, which makes the Fulkerson matchup kind of tough. And yet: Sarr commits 5.6 fouls per 40. Jackson, 5 fouls per 40. Fulkerson needs to work as hard as he can to keep both off the floor as long as possible.

Bonus: Keion Brooks, Jr. vs. Yves Pons. This was actually the matchup I was most interested to see when I thought Kentucky might be good. Brooks may or may not start and may or may not get more than 15 minutes, but he brings a fun element of physicality and will make Pons work for his points. Same on the other end with Pons on defense.

Three predictions

  1. At least 10 combined shots will be blocked in this game;
  2. One of Sarr/Jackson fouls out;
  3. Tennessee 64, Kentucky 57.

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