No other team in college basketball has beaten Kentucky more than Tennessee. The Kentucky series is the Vols oldest and most-played among SEC opponents. When the two teams meet Saturday night, they’ll be playing for the 223rd time as the Vols look for their 70th win over the Cats.
A win over No. 17 Kentucky would be a big one for No. 23 Tennessee (9-4, 0-2 SEC). The Vols stumble into the rivalry, having lost their first two conference games after an impressive run through non-conference play.
After falling to Arkansas 93-95 in overtime and Auburn, 84-94, in its SEC home-opener, Tennessee has lost back-to-back games for the first time all season. Now staring an 0-3 start in conference play right in the face, the Vols have to get back to playing with the effort, intensity and edge they possessed to start the season.
“Everyone doing their job. Not taking anything for granted,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said about what his team needs to do in order to get back on track in a media availability on Friday morning. “What I’ve hope they’ve learned is that if they play that way, we’re not a very good basketball team. We need everybody to do their job for us.”
While Tennessee has stumbled of late, Kentucky has begun to hit its stride. John Calipari’s squad may be the youngest team in the country, but the Cats roster is still one of the most talented in the country.
“From the beginning to where they are now, they’ve continued to improve every game,” Barnes said of Kentucky. “Long, athletic, a team that they’ve gotten better all the way around, they’ve got depth and their bench has been good to them.”
Freshmen Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lead the talented, but young Cats roster. Knox leads Kentucky in scoring at 14.6 points per game and 6.0 rebounds. Gilgeous-Alexander has really come on of late, leading Kentucky in scoring that last three games coming off the bench.
In its last time out, Kentucky survived its first road test of the season, defeating LSU 74-71. With the win, the Cats have won 10 out of their last 11 games with its lone loss coming to UCLA.
Thompson-Boling Arena hasn’t been kind to Kentucky of late, as the Cats have lost three of the last four games in Knoxville. Calipari knows just how difficult of a time his young team will have on Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET.
“They (Tennessee) could easily be 13-0,” Calipari said. “It’s going to be a war. It’ll be good for these guys to feel this. Playing on the road last game was good, and now you go here and it’s always a difficult game for us. Great environment, but it’s going to be hard.”
While the Cats may not be familiar with the Vols, Calipari and Barnes are great friends, and Calipari hates playing friends. While he may hate playing his buddies, Calipari has learned to appreciate the moment because many don’t survive this long in coaching.
“I just keep telling myself, because this becomes a grind, that I just need to be grateful that I’m having an opportunity to coach here and coach in these kind of games,” Calipari said.
But Barnes isn’t a “jagoff” according to Calipari. Barnes is somebody that he is genuinely happy to see have success.
“The only thing that is easier is if you do get dinged I can walk up and seriously say, ‘I’m happy for you,’ “Calipari said. “And I am happy for him (Barnes) and he knows it. There are other games that I just say, ‘Good job,’ and I’m not happy for you without saying it. At all.”
In order for Barnes to have success against Calipari on Saturday night, his workhorses are going to have to show up, something they didn’t do against Auburn last Tuesday.
Tennessee got outworked against the Tigers, being out-rebounded and out-hustled. According to guard Lamonte Turner, it was time to check the film, re-evaluate and correct the mistakes. The Vols need to get back to their roots. That being a team that hunts its opponents. Not one that gets preyed on.
On if he’s seen anything from his team to indicate they’ve gotten better, Barnes doesn’t know because he didn’t see what was coming before Auburn.
“I have no idea,” Barnes said. “I wish I could read it all because I would probably sleep a little bit better. We pretty much have had pretty good practices.
“There’s a lot of things the other night that we weren’t doing.”
The Vols need to have those things corrected by tipoff, as they can’t afford an 0-3 start in SEC play. While a three-game skid to begin conference play wouldn’t be cause to hit the panic button, it would become a concern of how long the skid could last with games against rival Vanderbilt and No. 11 Texas A&M on the horizon.
Tennessee has several players who can provide a much-needed spark, as three Vols – Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bowden – enter averaging double-figures in scoring while two others – Turner and Jordan Bone – are averaging just under 10.0 points per game.
Scoring won’t be what wins, or loses the game for Tennessee on Saturday. Whoever wins the game, will have won the battle on the boards. Against Auburn, Tennessee allowed the Tigers to grab 22 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 more field goals than the Vols.
Kentucky arrives in Knoxville averaging 39.9 rebounds per game, while Tennessee averages 38.1 rebounds.
Not only is Saturday’s contest big for the Vols in order to get back on track, but they’re also hosting a potential program-changer. Anfernee Simons – a five-star guard out of Florida – is visiting Knoxville this weekend. Simons is ranked the No. 9 overall player in the country and the No. 1 combo-guard in the country.
Simons would be a big coup for the Vols, but first they have to handle business on the court. How sweet would it be for Tennessee to knock off a Top 20 Kentucky team in an amazing environment with the biggest recruit they’ve had on campus in years to witness it?
In front of a sellout crowd, the Vols aim to do just that.
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics