Prediction Panel: No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky

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    Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

    The RTI team makes their picks for the No. 1 Vols’ match-up with No. 5 Kentucky this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for this Saturday’s huge contest.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    This will be the biggest Tennessee-Kentucky game of my lifetime, and I can’t wait to see it.

    The Vols match-up fairly well across the board with the Wildcats, but there are a few areas that concern me in this game. Kentucky is an excellent rebounding team, pulling down an average of 39.2 rebounds per game. Tennessee has been pretty bad about boxing out on defense against their opponents. The Vols are allowing an average of 12.2 offensive rebounds per game. That’s one of the worst averages in Division I college basketball.

    Not only that, but Kentucky has been pretty accurate from three this season. As a team, they’re hitting 35.7 percent of their three-pointers in SEC play, the fifth-best percentage in conference play. That’s highlighted by Tyler Herro’s 42.2 percent shooting from three in conference play. P.J. Washington doesn’t attempt too many threes, but he’s been deadly from distance when he does shoot them. He’s made 48.1 percent of the 27 threes he’s attempted in SEC play.

    The Vols, meanwhile, have allowed opponents to make 36.8 percent of their three-pointers in 11 SEC games. Tennessee allowed a season-high 14 makes from three against South Carolina on Wednesday night during an 85-73 victory over the Gamecocks.

    Even with all those numbers going against Tennessee, I still like the Vols’ chances in this game.

    Tennessee was able to go up to Rupp Arena and get a victory last year, and they’re an even better team this season than they were last season. Of course, Kentucky is a better team this year than last season as well, but UT’s experience and poise really stand out to me.

    The Vols have a potent offense and can be really good on defense too. They’re averaging the most points per game in SEC play and are giving up the third-fewest. Kentucky has a really good defense, giving up the fewest points in conference play this season, but their offense has left a lot to be desired at times. They’re scoring the seventh-fewest points per game in SEC play this year.

    Plus, I think Tennessee provides a big match-up problem for the Wildcats.

    I don’t know that Kentucky has a player who can match up well against Admiral Schofield on defense. The Wildcats have the post presence to slow down Grant Williams, and Ashton Hagans has been an excellent guard defender this year and will likely be put on Jordan Bone for most of the game. But Schofield presents a major problem for Kentucky.

    Tennessee has never won back-to-back games in Rupp Arena, and they only have five wins total there in 42 all-time games played in that arena. But records and history are made to be broken, and I think this is the year the Vols finally end that dubious streak.

    Pick: Tennessee, 78-73

    MVP: Admiral Schofield, Tennessee forward

    Kentucky is a very good defensive team, but they just don’t have a player with the right combination of girth and speed to guard Admiral Schofield effectively. He wasn’t great in Lexington last year (12 points, six rebounds), but he was very effective in UT’s games against the Wildcats in Knoxville and in the SEC Tournament, scoring 20 and 22 points in those two games respectfully. In seven career games against Kentucky, Schofield is shooting 46.8 percent and is averaging 14.4 points and 7.1 rebounds. All three of those numbers are better than his career averages.

    Ben’s Pick

    In what will be the biggest Tennessee/Kentucky game of my lifetime, there’s really only one outcome that will surprise me. That would be the Cats blowing the Vols out of the gym.

    I’ve been on record for over a month or so now in regards to my skepticism surrounding the hype Kentucky is receiving. Are the Cats a good basketball team? Absolutely. But are they a team that can win the national championship or a team that is one of the five best in the country? I don’t believe so.

    We know Tennessee is, though.

    Rupp Arena will be an incredible environment on Saturday night, but it’s not something that will affect the Vols in a negative manner. Tennessee is an old team with plenty of experience. The atmosphere isn’t going to phase them. I don’t believe they’ll be too amped up or nervous.

    So that leaves the determining factors that relate to basketball. Tennessee has the edge at arguably every position.

    PJ Washington is a legitimate SEC Player of the Year candidate, but as of today, Grant Williams IS the SEC Player of the Year. Ashton Hagans is a terrific defender and point guard, but I’ll take Jordan Bone. Keldon Johnson is going to play basketball for a long time, but as of today, give me Admiral Schofield. Tyler Herro is a terrific shooter, but can be inconsistent at times. I’ll take Jordan Bowden, who has been the epitome of consistency in conference play.

    Even Tennessee’s bench is more experienced and has better depth. That doesn’t guarantee a win obviously, but on paper, it’s clear the Vols are the better team.

    At the end of the day, I’m not picking against the No. 1 team in the country, the only team in the nation to not lose a game in regulation and the team that has won 20 of their 23 games by double-digits.

    Pick: Tennessee, 77-70

    MVP: Jordan Bone, Tennessee point guard

    As Swain Event listener Turkey Man would say, Tennessee junior point guard Jordan Bone is going to be in the “Bone Zone” on Saturday night. Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans is very good, but he has been in a slump this recently. In the words of John Calipari, he’s hit a wall. That’s not ideal for the Cats as Hagans walks into a match-up with the most savvy point guard in the conference. I expect Bone’s experience to get the best of Hagans.