For the third time this season, Tennessee and Kentucky will face-off on the basketball court. This time, it’s in a win-or-go-home situation.
No. 3 seed Tennessee (28-4, 15-3 SEC) will take on No. 2 seed Kentucky (27-5, 15-3 SEC) in a rubber match in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon. It’ll be a quick turnaround for both squads, as Kentucky’s game against Alabama didn’t end till close to 9:00 Eastern, and Tennessee’s match-up with Mississippi State ended a few minutes before 11:30 Eastern. The two will tip-off at approximately 3:30 Eastern today, around 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Auburn vs. Florida semifinal match-up that tips-off at 1:00 Eastern.
The two teams split the regular season series this year, as both squads earned blowout victories on their home courts. Kentucky pounded the Vols in Lexington by a score of 86-69 to knock them off the No. 1 spot in the polls, but Tennessee returned the favor in Knoxville, toppling the Wildcats by a score of 71-52.
Now, the two will meet in Nashville on a “neutral” court.
This year marks the second-straight season in which the Vols and Wildcats have faced each other in the SEC Tournament. Last year, the Vols swept the regular season series against Kentucky, but the Wildcats got the last laugh. Kentucky beat Tennessee 77-72 in the SEC Tournament Finals last year to earn their fourth-straight tournament title.
Saturday’s game won’t be a for a title, but the winner will get a chance to play for the tournament championship on Sunday.
The Vols handled business against Mississippi State late on Friday night, winning 83-76. Kentucky rolled over Alabama, blowing out the Tide 73-55. That’s how these two teams got here, and now it’s time for the most anticipated rubber match of the season in the SEC.
Here’s everything you need to know about Tennessee vs. Kentucky Round III in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Return of Reid Travis
The last time these two teams played, Kentucky forward Reid Travis didn’t play because of injury. And his absence was felt, as the Vols dominated the Wildcats in the paint and beat them by 19 points in a sold out Thompson-Boling Arena.
This time, though, Travis is back.
The Stanford grad transfer suffered a knee injury the game after the Wildcats beat the Vols in Lexington, and he was held out for the remainder of the regular season. He was a huge reason why UT was limited to just 20 points in the paint in Rupp Arena and why the Vols got manhandled in that contest. Travis returned to action in Kentucky’s quarterfinal game against Alabama, and he made an impact, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds in 23 minutes.
Travis played close to a full allotment of minutes against the Tide, and aside from getting in some foul trouble, looked to be close to 100 percent. His return could be a huge factor in Saturday’s game.
Both Travis and P.J. Washington proved to be a formidable duo when the Vols faced Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but Washington was all by his lonesome in Knoxville. Grant Williams took advantage in the second match-up, but he and Kyle Alexander will have to be ready for the same one-two punch they faced in Lexington when they take on the Wildcats in Nashville.
That’s Not Good
Tennessee has struggled mightily against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. In fact, they haven’t beaten the Wildcats in the tournament in 40 years.
The last time the Vols beat Kentucky in the SEC Tournament was all the way back in 1979 in the tournament finals. Tennessee took down the Wildcats 75-69 in overtime to win the championship in the first year the SEC Tournament had been played since 1951.
Since then, though, the Vols haven’t won a tournament title, nor have they beaten Kentucky in the tournament.
The Wildcats have won four-straight games against the Vols in the SEC Tournament, including last year’s 77-72 victory in the finals. The Vols are just 4-12 all-time against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, and their losses to the Wildcats have often been extremely lopsided. Eight of Kentucky’s 12 wins over the Vols in the tournament have come by double digits, and five have come by at least 20 points.
This year against Kentucky, the Vols have been able to rely on Jordan Bone to put up some impressive performances against the Wildcats.
Arguably the only bright spot in Tennessee’s 17-point loss to Kentucky in Lexington this season was Bone’s play. He totaled 19 points and six assists and was 3-of-4 from three. When the two teams met in Knoxville, Bone was even more dynamic. The junior point guard put up a career-high 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting overall in the Vols’ 19-point win. He was perfect from three, hitting all five of his shots from distance while dishing out three assists and never turning the ball over once.
Even in the Vols’ loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Finals last year, Bone was efficient. He made three of his four three-pointers and finished with 12 points, four assists, and zero turnovers.
This season, Bone is averaging 23 points and 4.5 assists against Kentucky. He’s shooting an eye-popping 67.9 percent from the floor against the Wildcats this season, including 88.9 percent from three. Dating back to last season, Bone has dished out 17 assists compared to just five turnovers in his last four games against Kentucky.
Kentucky’s Tyler Herro has been on fire lately, and the Vols will have to make sure he doesn’t torch them on Saturday.
Herro led all scorers in Kentucky’s 73-55 victory over Alabama on Friday night, totaling 20 points while making eight of his 14 shots from the floor. Herro has scored at least 20 points in three of his last six games and is averaging 18.7 points a contest over his last three games. The freshman is averaging 14.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game for Kentucky this season, and he leads the team in minutes played.
The last time Tennessee and Kentucky played, the Vols bottled Herro up and frustrated him. He finished with just six points on 2-of-11 shooting, and he missed all five of his three-pointers. He did pull down six rebounds, but UT minimized the damage he did otherwise.
Even including that game in Knoxville, Herro is averaging 18.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists over his last five games. He’s shooting 56.9 percent overall in that stretch as well.
How Much Blue?
Even after Kentucky’s game finished up on Friday, a ton of Wildcat fans stuck around to watch the Vols take on Mississippi State. There was a large smattering of orange, and Tennessee’s game ended up feeling more like a home game in the second half.
But Kentucky fans travel very well, especially to the SEC Tournament. Will Saturday’s game feel more like a road game than a neutral court?
Big Blue Nation tends to take over whatever arena hosts the SEC Tournament, and Friday’s game against Alabama certainly looked and felt like a home game for the Wildcats. Vol fans filled Thompson-Boling Arena when these two teams last played, and Nashville is only about three hours away from Knoxville. Plus, there are a ton of Vol fans in Nashville.
Still, Kentucky fans are likely to outnumber Vol fans in the arena on Saturday. The question is, just how much will they outnumber them, and how much of an advantage will that be for the Wildcats?