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The State of 3 Programs

by William Mayfield

Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky have been playing basketball against each other for over a hundred years. What formerly made up the northern most triangle of the SEC has now completed one go around of SEC matchups against each other. While there is certainly more to take away from this season, which is 2/3 of the way home, the matchups were telling in their own ways. I dove into the state of the programs, reasonable expectations, and forecasting the future in regards to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt.


Let’s start with a bright spot. What was first “arguably” Rick Barnes’ most talented team is becoming almost certainly his most talented team. Some may argue 2019, but that was more a testament to Barnes’ player development. Noone was clamoring for Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, or Jordan Bone out of high school. And while Williams has gone on to have a serviceable nba career, that group is remembered for what it did accomplish (a 2018 sec regular season title and a 2019 Sweet 16 run after being #1 in the country for over a month) and what it didn’t accomplish (no elite 8 and no sec tournament championship).

This year’s squad is full of players who have already accomplished almost as much (2021 SEC tournament and a sweet 16 run that included a 2nd round win over Duke last season). The one difference, however, has been the identity of the team. With the addition of Dalton Knecht, who currently ranks second amongst all players odds wise to win the Naismith and Wooden awards, Tennessee’s scoring lulls that defined their perceivably low ceiling are mostly, over. Knecht was shattering SEC scoring records early in SEC play eclipsing the 30-point mark more often than he didn’t. With Tennessee struggling at the half against Vanderbilt, Knecht caught fire in the second half and ended up over 30 again in what ended up being an easy 75-62 victory. Barnes’ teams in Knoxville have been noticeably void of isolation scorers and Knecht might be as good of an isolation scorer as college basketball has seen this decade. He needs very little time to get off his shot and has an exceptional left-hand finish. If Tennessee ever needs a slumpbuster, the answer is simple. Give it to Dalton.

Blunt observations

The reality with guys like Josian Jordan James, Santiago vescovi, and Jonas Aidoo Zakai Ziegler is that you will ALWAYS get their best defensively, but you can’t count on their offense every single night. In a surprise home loss to South Carolina, Tennessee seemed to defer to a fault, as Knecht started slow but ended up with 30+ while everyone stood around and watched. Only one other player on the team scored more than 6 points. When Tennessee can get going, they have firepower. They have had offensive onslaughts this year at UNC, against Ole Miss, against Alabama, and certainly this past Saturday at Rupp. Those games seem to be when EVERYONE looks to score, not just Knecht.

Tennessee is by any metric a top five defensive team in the country. They’ve added some press looks this year that have been effective and keep guys engaged when the offense is mostly running through Knecht. Another big key is Jonas Aidoo, a 6’11 rim protector from Durham, North Carolina of all places. When he shines, so does Tennessee. But he disappears at times and can get hit with foul trouble. There is a pretty big drop off in the front court when Aidoo comes out with the somewhat curious departure of Olivier Nkamhoua this offseason to Michigan. Almost every contender with the possible exception of Houston has an elite big guy this year (Klingan at UConn, Dickinson at KU, Bacot at UNC, and Edey at Purdue).

This Tennessee team is quite possibly Barnes’ best and final shot at a final 4 run. They absolutely need to run through Knecht, but they’re at their best when everyone else stays involved. Ziegler, James, and Vescovi combined for over 60 in a dominating 103-92 win at Rupp and Aidoo was the best big man on the floor, gobbling up rebounds left and right. In Tennessee’s win last night over LSU, Knecht had 27 points, but more importantly, had six assists. Let’s not forget this team made the sweet 16 last year without Knecht. It takes a village, and Tennessee will need all hands on deck to make the final weekend.


I’ve talked about this with Cats fans and the Champions classic performance is usually a decent indicator of the type of year Kentucky will have. They looked really good against a veteran Kansas team and, despite the loss, the big blue kool aid was flowing.

Since then, it’s been predictably unpredictable. UK holds a super impressive win over number 3 North Carolina and Antonio Reeves is sneakily putting up first team All-American type numbers. I went to Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt at memorial last night and it looked like the globetrotters vs. the Generals. The Cats started 11-13 from three and were getting anything they wanted. They must have flushed home ten alley oops. So, cats fans, get your final 4 tickets now right?

Not so fast… While Kentucky has a lot to be excited about, particularly a much improved Reeves and combo guard Rob Dillingham who plays downhill and has an incredible feel for when to drive, shoot or dish, they still have many of the problems you would expect. It sounds like a broken record, but Kentucky’s youth is abundantly clear. Cal’s best teams have always been the ones with a sprinkle of youth and a sprinkle of veterans. Outside of Reeves, no one on this team played a real meaningful role last year. To me, this is most felt with the bigs.

Guys like Nick Richards, Willie Cauley-Stein, Josh Harrellson, and PJ Washington got significantly better as their time at UK went on. Between the weight room and just feel for the game, bigs tend to really improve over time. Particularly against Tennessee and South Carolina, Kentucky felt like a touch of boys against men. Even against a well outmatched Vandy squad last night, Kentucky struggled mightily getting through screens and communicating and Vanderbilt seemed to get really easily looks after a dejected Kentucky would lose out on a loose ball rebound. Guys like Bradshaw and “Big Z’ are ripe with talent and can fly around for guys of their size, but college basketball at this level is super physical. Kentucky’s best hope of having a front court guy who can measure up to the murderer’s row of good college big men this year is veteran transfer Tre Mitchell. Mitchell is in his 4th stop (oh how times have changed) and has played in some big boy basketball games.

Blunt observations

Kentucky is super talented and CAN beat anyone. I just don’t see them being good enough defensively to string wins together in March. They gave up 90+ in a home WIN against Georgia. At times against Vanderbilt, they seemed completely disinterested in defending all together. Rivals usually gives out the five stars for offense, and boy do they have that. But when Tennessee goes from scoring 59 at home against South Carolina, much of which was a last-minute flurry from Knecht, to scoring 103 at your place, there’s cause for concern.

To me, this feels like the team BEFORE the team. Unfortunately, frustration is growing rampant in Lexington and patience is not abundant. Whether that’s fair or not is a different story as the standard set by Cal from ’09 to ’15 hasn’t been matched by any program (even Villanova who won 2 national titles in a short period). The reality is that the talent is simply more spread around than it was 10 years ago. It’s wildly unclear who will return and who will bolt for the draft. While Sheppard, big Z, Wagner, Edwards, Reeves, and Dillingham would likely all get drafted, none are lottery picks. With NIL, it’s certainly possible that Kentucky gets back most of those guys. With an extra year to get stronger and better on the defensive end, mixed with the number 2 recruiting class in the country, UK should be back firmly on top of the SEC next season. For this team to get to the second weekend, they’re going to have to improve defensively.


I’ve had the opportunity to attend to Vanderbilt basketball games this year. However, I’ve not seen many Vanderbilt fans. In both instances, Tennessee and Kentucky completely overtook Memorial Gymnasium. And while Vanderbilt isn’t exactly a blue blood, they’re currently a long way away from the days of Dan Langhi, Matt Freije, Jermaine Beal, John Jenkins, Shan Foster, etc.. Heck, right now they’re a long way away from Scottie Pipper Jr. and Liam Robbins.

There is one guy who stands out for Vanderbilt, and it’s their point guard Ezra Manjon. He is often their leading scorer and assist getter, a title that generally spells doom. Manjon’s ability to drive often generates open threes, which seems to be the only way Vanderbilt can score consistently.

Blunt observations

When Vanderbilt plays deliberately and with a purpose, they show some signs of life. They used much of the same recipe against Tennessee that South Carolina did, which was to use the entire shot clock and not let their superior opponent get going downhill. It frustrated Tennessee when they would play 28 seconds of good defense and Vandy would either pull off a miracle at the buzzer or get an offensive rebound. Unfortunately, they are an absolute disaster in transition defense and their lack of front court was none more evident than last night when Kentucky flew to the rim with ease.

The reality at Vanderbilt is a stark one. Their bets player, Jordan Wright, bolted for LSU last year in what was barely an upward move. What little momentum Vanderbilt gained from a decent conference slate last year left with him. The complaint on Stackhouse early on was that he let too many games slip in the non-conference. Now, they just can’t seem to win at all.

While Stackhouse still shows frustration at officials, his frustration has molded into dejection. He stands idly by as guys take shots that they have to know aren’t good shots. But Stackhouse knows that his team, at least right now, simply isn’t talented enough to consistently get good shots in a very deep sec. Stackhouse has flopped as a recruiter and while I still think he is a capable coach, the situation at Vanderbilt seems beyond repair. Vanderbilt has a lot to sell. They’re in booming Nashville and have a fun environment when the team is halfway decent. Unfortunately, I don’t see any “memorial magic” on the horizon until another coach is roaming the sidelines for the Commodores.


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