Tubby Smith watched Tennessee players keep slipping inside for easy baskets, confounding his defenders in the post.
The result was a second straight Kentucky loss on Tuesday night and a performance Smith figures his 20th-ranked Wildcats cannot afford to repeat in Saturday’s game against No. 25 Alabama.
The Crimson Tide’s top scorers are the lanky 6-foot-10 Jermareo Davidson, bulky forward Richard Hendrix and 6-6 slasher Alonzo Gee. Smith said that trio’s presence means Kentucky (18-7, 7-4 Southeastern Conference) might have to concede some opportunities to outside shooters like Ronald Steele and Mykal Riley.
“That can create a real problem if you have to send too many people inside, which we’ll have to do because we haven’t been playing very good post defense,” Smith said. “It’s a double-edged sword: What do you give up, the outside shot or the inside shot? I think you’ve got to take away the inside game first.”
It didn’t happen in that 89-85 loss to the Volunteers, leaving Smith grousing about the defensive play of his interior players and contemplating lineup changes.
“They beat us in the zone and got behind us and scored on us,” Smith said. “They must have had 22 or 23 layups and dunks on us.
“A lot of it came from just absolutely nonexistent post defense, trying to steal the ball.”
Like Kentucky, Alabama (18-7, 5-6) has dropped two straight games, and both played No. 1 Florida close. It sets the stage for a game that could be a battle to remain in the Top 25, where the Tide has resided all season.
Alabama blew an early 18-point lead en route to a 76-67 loss at No. 1 Florida Wednesday night. The Wildcats fell to the Gators 64-61 last week.
“(A win) would help us out a lot,” Davidson said. “You always want to win, but I don’t think we need to lose another. I’m not ready to feel that way again, especially coming off the Florida loss.”
Hendrix, Davidson and Gee combined for 44 points, giving Smith cause for concern in a game that will feature several of the league’s top post players.
Smith said he is considering changing his lineup. That could mean going bigger by using seven-foot center Lukasz Obrzut and forward Sheray Thomas or smaller by using freshman guard Jodie Meeks.
“We’re looking at some different things, but I haven’t made a decision yet,” Smith said. “Our smaller lineup has been very effective in getting us back in games.
“When we dig such a big hole, we seem to be scoring better in transition when we have a smaller lineup.”
Tide coach Mark Gottfried said Kentucky’s post players present challenges, particularly 6-11 center Randolph Morris, Obrzut and the 6-8 Bobby Perry.
“Bobby Perry can make a (3-pointer) so that poses you a little bit more problems on the perimeter and Obrzut is huge,” Gottfried said. “He’s a big old guy. But I think it all centers around Randolph Morris. I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s scoring, doing a good job for Kentucky.”
The game will feature three of the SEC’s top seven rebounders in Hendrix (third), Davidson (fifth) and Morris (seventh).
Hendrix is shooting a league-best 62.6 percent from the floor, and Morris is second at 58.7 percent.
While Hendrix is more of a physical inside presence and Davidson often scores on drives and jump shots, Smith said neither is one-dimensional.
“Their versatility is what impresses me the most about those guys,” he said. “They’re strong, physical and long. We have to find ways to keep the ball out of the post, something that we didn’t do against Tennessee or against Florida.”
Davidson, meanwhile, doesn’t just look forward to playing against Morris and the other big men. He enjoys jawing with Kentucky guard Ramel Bradley, a former AAU teammate.
“I always look forward to playing against him, talking a little trash on the court,” Davidson said.