If they win Saturday, the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers (23-1, 11-0 SEC) will have a win against every opponent in the division and improve their school record win streak to 20. As always, John Calipari and the No. 5 ranked Kentucky Wildcats (20-4, 9-2 SEC) make that a sizable “if.”
The Vols are surging through the latter half of their greatest season to date, having just extended their win streak to 19 following a 85-73 victory against South Carolina.
While the individual efforts of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield earn them the top spots on the box score, astute observers recognize that the power of this Tennessee team is greater than the sum of its parts. With both Jordan Bone leading the SEC in assists per game and Jordan Bowden averaging over 15 points per game in conference play coming off the bench, every man on the roster is doing his part to cement Tennessee’s position at the center of college basketball.
However, a win for the Volunteers on Saturday means a road win in Rupp Arena, and that’s never easy. Kentucky is 13-1 at home this season, and has only lost 10 times in Rupp since 2009 when the Wildcats hired Calipari. One of those losses was dealt by the Tigers from Baton Rouge on Tuesday. With the sting of the LSU loss still fresh in the minds of the No. 5 team in the nation, and No. 1 knocking on the door, the Vols can expect Kentucky’s best game.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes won’t let his team show up to Lexington complacent. In a postgame presser, Barnes expressed his disappointment with his unit’s transition defense against South Carolina.
“In the first half we were jogging back,” said Barnes. “I thought we were celebrating, and that’s not who we are… We addressed that at halftime — the fact that you have to play. It goes back to the understanding that there’s a lot of basketball left to play and that we can get better. You can never jog in this game, especially when you score.”
PJ Washington and the Wildcats hope to catch the Vols resting on their laurels. Averaging 14.4 points per game and leading his team in rebounds, Washington has been known to perform in high-profile contests, dropping at least 20 points against No. 9 Kansas, No. 22 Mississippi St and No. 19 LSU. Kentucky has performed well defensively, keeping their opponent below 75 points in all but five of their games this year.
As fans and the media look ahead to the NCAA Tournament and beyond, Barnes and the Vols remain concerned with taking the season one game at a time and not underestimating their opponent. Ahead of this matchup, Coach Barnes wants the team to be focused on self-improvement and return to team-oriented basketball.
“Regardless of rankings,” said Barnes, “I think we are all concerned about seeing how well we can play.”
With all the hype about rankings and tournament implications, and both Lexington and Knoxville boiling over with excitement, the Vols seem comfortable in the No. 1 spot. Schofield, who led the scoring in Tuesday’s outing against the Gamecocks, is used to each of their foes giving them their best game.
“Everyone comes to play when you are a top team like we are,” Schofield said. “That’s not an understatement on their work ethic or their shooting ability. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
To the world, the matchup will likely be a high-scoring contest between top-five conference powerhouses. To Barnes, Schofield and the rest of the Vols, Kentucky is no different from the rest of the pack. It’s just another game.
Tennessee will face Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington. The game will tip off at 8 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN.
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Edited by Robert Hughes