February 14, 2010
An orange-clad team stymied the taller, stronger Kentucky Wildcats for much of Saturday night's game by slowing down the tempo and playing the same basic zone defense that middle-school teams often run.
No, it wasn't Syracuse. But if Kentucky has any intention of beating the Orange at the Final Four or even making it there to play them, the Wildcats will have to get a lot more efficient attacking a zone than they were against outmanned Tennessee.
Until pulling away for a 73-62 victory with a late 20-4 run fueled by fast-break buckets and 3-point shooting, Kentucky looked like a shell of the formidable team that has established itself as the SEC's best.
A Tennessee squad playing with a hobbled Wayne Chism stifled the young Wildcats with its methodical pace and 3-2 zone, keeping John Wall out of the lane, preventing DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson from getting touches in the paint and forcing Kentucky to make jump shots. The Wildcats were shooting 37 percent and trailing 52-50 with nine minutes remaining before Wall started getting to the foul line, Eric Bledsoe began knocking down 3-pointers and Tennesee turnovers led to fast-break run-outs.
Cousins attacked the glass with his usual ferocity, yet he finished with just five points and grew visibly frustrated with a lack of touches against the zone. He threw elbows, jawed with officials and even slammed his trademark headband down late in the game, signs that he's still immature enough to come unglued in a big game if an opposing team baits him enough.
Is the zone the blueprint for how to beat Kentucky in March? Well, it's probably not that simple since the Wildcats have faced and beaten all kinds of zones already this season.
But the way the Wildcats struggled against Tennesee when they weren't scoring in transition, they should expect to see more zone down the stretch in the SEC and in the NCAA tournament.