When No. 1 Tennessee and No. 5 Kentucky square-off on Saturday night, it’ll be the first meeting between two SEC teams ranked inside the top five of the AP Poll since March 8, 2003.
More importantly, it’s arguably the biggest match-up ever between the two teams in the storied rivalry. Tennessee has only played Kentucky as the top-ranked team in the country once – which resulted in a win on March 2, 2008. But that Kentucky team wasn’t ranked.
“Regardless of all the outside things that people want to talk about, it is about us keeping focused on what we have to do,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said Friday afternoon. “Our guys know that, but we are focused on what we have to do to go in there and play good basketball.”
Being focused shouldn’t be an issue for the Vols. This is a veteran-laden team where most of the key players have played in at least six games between against the Wildcats. At an unprecedented mark, the senior duo of Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander are 4-3 against Kentucky in their careers.
Saturday night’s version of the Tennessee-Kentucky match-up is the type of game that this veteran group has grown together in over the years.
“They (his players) will be ready for it,” Barnes said. “They have handled some tough situations, even this year. Experience is a good thing, but this Kentucky team is a totally different team.”
As is the case with every John Calipari team, every year brings in a slew of Cats that have never played college basketball together. And by the time February or March rolls around, Calipari has the young Cats playing good basketball.
This year is no different. Kentucky began the season as the No. 2 team in the country but were quickly humbled. In their first game of the season, the Cats were run off the court in a 118-84 loss t0 Duke. A month later, Kentucky fell to Seton Hall 84-83 in overtime. And nearly a month after that, the Cats fell to Alabama 77-75 in their SEC-opener.
That’s when things changed for Kentucky. Picking up the intensity on the defensive end of the floor led to 10-straight wins and a close 73-71 loss to LSU on Tuesday. In scoring defense, the Wildcats are second in the conference, holding opponents to 65.5 points per game. They rank first in SEC play, holding conference opponents to just 61.5 points per contest.
Along with stepping up on the defensive end, Kentucky has gotten after it on the glass this season. Among SEC teams, the Cats rank second in rebounding – averaging 39.0 rebounds per game. On the offensive glass, Kentucky is averaging 12.5 offensive rebounds per game – third-best in the conference.
“They (Kentucky) have one or two guys that fight and get it,” Barnes said. “We are going to have to be concise with all five of our guys going down there and rebounding.
“We have to rebound the ball better, and our guys know that. We are going to have to do that.”
Saturday night’s game marks the beginning of a tough schedule to end the season for the Vols. Six of the remaining seven games are against teams in the top-half of the SEC standings. Barnes doesn’t know just how sharp his team is heading into the gauntlet, but he does know they treat each game the same.
The gauntlet is on hold as of now, though. Tennessee has to get past Kentucky first in order to keep up with LSU atop the SEC standings. The end result Saturday night may not define the season, but it sure will change the trajectory.
“There is too much basketball left to play,” Barnes said. “It is a big game because it is the next one on our schedule, and it’s a big game for them because it is the next one on their schedule.
“I know they see the hype around this game, and there are going to be bigger ones.”
Whether it’s the next game or not, a lot is on the line for the Vols as they square off with the Cats for the 226th time in 109 years – 178 miles away from home.