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What to Know: No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky

(Photo via Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald Leader)

For the 226th time, Tennessee and Kentucky will meet on the basketball court when the two teams face-off on Saturday in Lexington. And this weekend’s game is arguably the biggest regular season contest between the two programs.

No. 1 Tennessee (23-1, 11-0 SEC) and No. 5 Kentucky (20-4, 9-2 SEC) face-off for the first time this season, and it also marks the first time the two teams have played each other when both are ranked inside the top five of the AP Poll. The two teams have played three previous contests when both have been ranked inside the top 10, but they’ve never both been top-five teams in a single match-up.

The Vols enter Saturday’s game riding a program-record 19-game winning streak. Kentucky lost on Tuesday night to LSU at home on a controversial game-winning put-back as time expired. Before that, the Wildcats had won 10-straight games.

Kentucky has never lost back-to-back games at Rupp Arena in the John Calipari era. So far over the last 10 years, the Wildcats have been able to avenge every home loss in their next game at Rupp.

Tennessee will look to change that.

The Wildcats have historically dominated the rivalry between the two schools, winning 154 of the 225 meetings dating back to 1910. But the Vols have turned the tide recently, as they’ve won two of the last three and four of the last seven games between the two teams.

Last year, Tennessee swept the regular season series against the Wildcats, but Kentucky got the last laugh. The Vols fell to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Finals, 77-72, and failed to win three-straight games against the Wildcats for the first time since 1979-80.

Tennessee won 61-59 in Lexington last year, giving them their first victory in Rupp Arena since 2006. The Vols have never won back-to-back meetings in Rupp.

Here’s a look at everything you need to know when the Vols take on Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday night.

Boxing Out

You probably won’t find two teams in the SEC who put more of an emphasis on rebounding than Tennessee and Kentucky. But the Wildcats have an edge in this particular match-up.

Kentucky has been superb at winning the rebounding battle in SEC play. They have the second-best rebounding total in conference play, bringing down 417 rebounds in 11 SEC games this season. They’ve also held SEC opponents to the fewest rebounds in conference play. SEC teams have only been able to bring down an average of 30.9 rebounds a game against the Wildcats.

Tennessee consistently wins the rebounding battle as well, and they’ve been especially proficient at rebounding misses when on defense. They have the second-highest average of defensive rebounds per game in SEC play, bringing down 26.4 defensive rebounds per game.

But even though they corral a lot of missed shots by opponents, they’ve also allowed an alarming amount of offensive rebounds. And they’ve been bad about rebounding their own misses on offense.

The Vols have given up the fourth-most offensive rebounds to opponents in SEC play (134), and they’re only averaging 9.6 offensive boards per contest against conference opponents. That’s the second-lowest average in conference play this season.

Kentucky has only lost the rebounding battle three times all season, and they’re 1-2 when they do. The Vols are 6-0 when their opponent gets more rebounds than them this season.

Distance Shooting

Tennessee has been really, really bad at defending the three in SEC play this season. And Kentucky is more than capable of hitting those outside shots.

The Vols have allowed conference opponents to make 36.8 percent of their threes against them this season. That’s the second-worst shooting percentage allowed in SEC play this season. Against South Carolina on Wednesday night, Tennessee gave up a season-high 14 made three-pointers to the Gamecocks in an 85-73 victory. That game marked the sixth time in the last 10 games that Tennessee has allowed at least 10 made three-pointers in a game.

In their last nine SEC games, Tennessee has allowed their opponents to connect on 39.6 percent of their threes.

Kentucky has the fifth-best three-point shooting percentage in SEC play this season, knocking down 35.7 percent of their threes against SEC opponents this year. But they’ve gone cold from deep as of late, making only 31.1 percent of their shots from distance over their last four games.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has made 40.4 percent of their three-pointers over their last six games. Kentucky has allowed opponents to hit 34.2 percent of their threes over their last six contests.

Playing a Clean Game

When it comes to not turning the ball over, you won’t find two better teams in the SEC.

The Vols have the best turnover average in SEC play this season, giving the ball away just 10.6 times per game in 11 conference games. Kentucky is right behind Tennessee with the second-best turnover average in conference play, turning it over just 11.6 times a game.

Tennessee’s assist-to-turnover ratio is unmatched in the SEC, but Kentucky isn’t all that far behind.

The Vols’ assist/turnover ratio as a team is 1.78 in SEC play. Kentucky’s is 1.18.

Neither team is particularly great at forcing opponents to turn the ball over, either. The Vols rank ninth in SEC play in turnovers forced, and Kentucky ranks sixth. So don’t expect there to be a lot of unforced errors on Saturday night.

Age Factor

Almost 60 percent of Kentucky’s points this season have come from freshmen. The Wildcats have had 58.8 percent of their 1,881 points scored this season come from true freshmen. Tennessee, meanwhile, have had zero points scored by freshmen this year. In fact, 89.6 percent of UT’s points have come from juniors and seniors.

For seven of the nine primary scholarship players who play for Kentucky this season, Saturday will mark the first time they’ve played against the Vols. Only PJ Washington and Nick Richards return from last year’s team that played the Vols three times.

The Vols’ roster, on the other hand, has six players who will be playing at least their sixth game against the Wildcats when the two teams face-off on Saturday. Two players — Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander — will be playing their eighth game against Kentucky.

A House of Horrors 

For Tennessee, Rupp Arena has been a nightmare ever since it opened prior to the 1976-77 season.

The Vols have played in Rupp Arena 42 times heading into Saturday’s contest. And they’ve only won five of those 42 games, dropping the other 37.

Tennessee has picked up wins at Rupp in 1977, 1979, 1999, 2006 and last season in 2018. The Vols have never won back-to-back games in Rupp Arena in the 40-plus years the arena has been open. In fact, Tennessee hasn’t won back-to-back road games against Kentucky since they won 90-88 in overtime in Lexington on January 10th, 1976 — the season before Rupp Arena opened — and then picked up a 71-67 overtime victory over No. 2 Kentucky on January 12th, 1977 in their first-ever game in Rupp.

The Vols are just 17-90 all-time in Lexington, and seven of those wins came before 1928. Tennessee has only won 10 times in Lexington over the last 90 years.

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