KNOXVILLE -- Logic told Bruce Pearl to save his 3-2 zone defense for Kentucky's trip to Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I debated it," the Tennessee men's basketball coach admitted. "But I'm just not built that way."
The Volunteers implemented their best Kentucky-based scheme in Rupp Arena two weeks ago, and their zone baffled the Wildcats for 30 minutes. But the game lasted 40 minutes, and second-ranked Kentucky gradually pulled away down the stretch for a 73-62 win.
"I may have made a calculated mistake," said Pearl, whose 19th-ranked Vols host the Wildcats on Saturday.
"Maybe I could have done that to Kentucky here with a better chance to beat them than showing them my hand up there, but I showed my cards. I just feel like I owe it to the kids to put them in a position where they at least have a chance to win.
"Now, does that cost us the win here, because I think that's the best way to beat them? I don't know, but that's the risk that you run. It's hard to play the game without giving your kids a chance to win."
There are two basic questions left, as it relates to the Vols and Wildcats.
Can the Vols play better than they did in Rupp? They think so.
Do the Vols have new wrinkles they can show the Wildcats? They think so.
But the bottom line is neither answer can show itself until Saturday afternoon.
"Whether or not we're going to be better the second time around against Kentucky, I don't know yet," Pearl said. "But I'm not holding anything back. I'm showing you my hand, and I'm going to play you the best way I think we can beat you. And so I'm exposed."
Assistant coach Jason Shay again was assigned the Kentucky scouting duty. Pearl calls his former Iowa point guard his "head scout," and Shay typically breaks down the Vols' toughest opponents.
"I've always taken pride in our preparation," Shay said after Thursday night's video session with the team. "I've had to scout for a lot of our big games, and it's important for me to give those guys my best effort, and to give them the best game plan for us to win ballgames."
The bags under his eyes, the disheveled hair atop his head and the scruff on his face indicated the challenges of working on the Wildcats.
"We poke fun at him all the time, but Coach Shay is the man," freshman forward Kenny Hall said. "He's a smart guy. He ain't no newborn at this."
Shay and Pearl agree on game-planning.
"I just want to win ballgames," said Shay, who came to UT with Pearl five years ago. "I don't care if we've got to throw the kitchen sink at them the first time, and they know most everything we're going to do the second time. There's plenty of basketball-strategy things that we can do to tweak the next game plan.
"You can do completely opposite things. There's always options."
But what is the best option for the Wildcats?
Shay might know, but he's not telling beforehand.
"Zone was just one of the ways we felt like we could stay in the game at their place," Shay said. "Is it something we're going to use some this time? Probably, because it was effective. It's one of the ways that we can hide our weaknesses inside and keep post players out of foul trouble. We're just going to see what happens.
"We could play more zone ... or maybe we could play more man this time, because we're at home. But zone is going to be part of the package, for sure."
Sophomore guard Cameron Tatum said he "absolutely" approved of UT's Saturday plans, in large part because of Shay's track record for big-game scouts.
"Coach Shay is the quiet one, and the quiet ones are the more methodical ones, the ones who think out the game a lot," Tatum said. "He has a great mind for the game, and he knows how to scout players and teams well. In past years, I don't know if any other coach has scouted Florida as well as he's done.
"Even in that first game at Kentucky, he did a great job of scouting them. We just kind of lost control in the latter part of the game. Normally, most of the time when he scouts a game, he does a great job. He knows people's weaknesses, and he knows the team's weaknesses, and he knows what we can take advantage of. He knows our advantages and our disadvantages."
But the players have to do their part for a full 40 minutes, Hall noted.
"We had confidence in what we could do in our zone, because we'd been working hard on it in practice," Hall said. "It shouldn't have come out as a surprise, how well we did with it. But we just weren't able to finish. It seemed like we just kind of put our guard down. It's almost like we thought they were going to lay down and give it to us, and that wasn't the case at all. They're a great team, and when you're playing a great team, you can't afford to do that."
"Any team that doesn't have that fight in them and doesn't have the dog in them, you can afford to (lose focus) a little bit. But a team like Kentucky, they've got the fight in them, they've got the dog in them, so you've got to keep your guard up at all times and continue fighting until the buzzer goes off in the second half."
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