What to Know: Tennessee vs. No. 15 Kentucky

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    The SEC’s oldest men’s basketball rivalry will be on full display once again on Saturday when the Tennessee Volunteers host No. 15 Kentucky in Thompson-Boling Arena.

    The Vols (13-9, 5-4 SEC) are coming off a comeback victory against Alabama on the road on Tuesday, and that win ended a three-game losing streak for UT. Kentucky (17-5, 7-2) beat Mississippi State at home their last time out, and that followed a road loss to Auburn. The Wildcats have won five of their last six games and nine of their last 11 contests overall after an inauspicious start to their season.

    Tennessee will be without starting freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James once again on Saturday. The former five-star has missed the Vols’ last two games after tweaking his hip that caused him to miss most of UT’s preseason. In his place, redshirt freshman transfer forward Uros Plavsic has started the last two contests. The seven-footer played a season-high 26 minutes in his first start against Mississippi State, but he only played for eight minutes against Alabama on Tuesday.

    Kentucky is led by junior forward Nick Richards and sophomore guard Immanuel Quickly. Both are averaging 14.6 points a game, and Richards is also averaging 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game. Quickly is hitting 38.5 percent of his threes, the best on UK’s team. He’s also averaging 4.3 rebounds a contest.

    Star freshman Tyrese Maxey is averaging 13.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in his first year as a Wildcat. Point guard Ashton Hagans has upped his production on offense in his second year with Kentucky, averaging 12.5 points and a whopping 7.0 assists per game. Defensively, Hagans remains as stout as ever, averaging 2.1 steals a game and holding the most defensive win shares (1.5) on Kentucky’s roster.

    Saturday’s contest will mark the 229th time Kentucky and Tennessee have played in men’s basketball. The Wildcats are 155-73 all-time against the Vols, but 51 of those 73 wins for UT have come in Knoxville.

    Here are the most important things to know and keep an eye on for Saturday’s rivalry game that tips off at 1:00 PM Eastern on CBS.

    Protect this House

    Since Rick Barnes has been hired as Tennessee’s head basketball coach, the Vols have never lost to Kentucky in Knoxville. They’ll look to keep that streak alive on Saturday.

    Tennessee is a perfect 4-0 against the Wildcats in Thompson-Boling Arena since Barnes was named head coach prior to the 2015-16 season. An unranked Vol squad defeated No. 20 Kentucky 84-77 in Knoxville in Barnes’ first year, and another unranked UT team followed that up with an 82-80 victory over No. 4 Kentucky in 2017 in TBA. In 2018, Barnes’ No. 23 Tennessee team took down No. 17 Kentucky 76-65 in Knoxville, and last season the Vols-Cats match-up was a top-10 affair. No. 7 Tennessee beat No. 4 Kentucky 71-52 in front of a soldout Thompson-Boling Arena.

    All-time, Tennessee is 51-52 against Kentucky in Knoxville, but they’ve won five of their last six contests against the Wildcats at home. Tennessee has beaten Kentucky in four of the last six games they’ve played them, and UT is 6-4 against the Wildcats with Rick Barnes as head coach.

    Rebounding Battle 

    The Vols have had issues rebounding the ball a lot during this season, and they’ve given up a ton of offensive boards in a number of games. But believe it or not, Kentucky is actually even worse at stopping teams from grabbing offensive rebounds.

    In SEC play, Tennessee has given up 117 offensive rebounds, the 2nd-most in the conference. The Vols are allowing 13 offensive boards a game. Kentucky, meanwhile, has allowed 118 offensive rebounds in nine SEC games, giving up 13.1 offensive boards per game to conference foes.

    In Kentucky’s last two games, they’ve been torched on the offensive glass. The Wildcats gave up 16 offensive rebounds in a 75-66 loss to Auburn, and Mississippi State grabbed 15 offensive boards on Tuesday. Kentucky won that game 80-72, but the trend of allowing a plethora offensive rebounds continued for the Cats.

    This season, Kentucky has given up nine or more offensive boards in 11 of the 22 games they’ve played. The Wildcats are 8-3 in those games, and they’re 9-2 when they hold teams to eight or fewer offensive rebounds.

    Tennessee has allowed an opponent to come down with nine or more offensive rebounds in 10 of the 22 games they’ve played. The Vols are 6-4 in those games and are 7-5 when allowing eight or fewer offensive boards.

    Get to the Line

    With a few exceptions, the Vols have failed to attack the basket on a regular basis this year, and they’ve not gotten to the free throw line very often this season. The opposite is true for Kentucky.

    The Wildcats have attempted the second-most free throws among SEC teams in conference play this season, shooting 242 free throws in nine SEC games. Their 186 made free throws are the most in league play this year. Tennessee, on the other hand, has attempted the fewest free throws in SEC play, only getting to the charity stripe 160 times. Kentucky has drawn 200 fouls in SEC play, the second-most in conference play. The Vols have gotten an SEC opponent whistled for a foul just 169 times, the fourth-fewest.

    When the Vols have been aggressive and played more physically, they’ve had success. UT attempted a season-high 32 free throws against Alabama on Tuesday, and they made 23 of them. That was a big reason the Vols rallied and defeated the Tide 69-68 on the road. When Tennessee has attempted at least 20 free throws in a game this season, they’ve won all but one time. The Vols are 7-1 when they shoot 20 or more free throws, and they’re 6-8 when shooting 19 or fewer shots from the line.

    Kentucky has never attempted fewer than 13 free throws in a game this season. The Vols have totaled fewer than 13 free throws in four games this season, and they’re 2-2 in those contests.

    Last season, free throws played a huge part in both regular season match-ups between the Vols and Wildcats. In Kentucky’s 86-69 win over UT in Lexington, the Cats held a 33-18 edge in free throw attempts. When the Vols won 71-52 in Knoxville, Tennessee won the free throw battle, attempting 29 compared to 14 by UK.


    Both the Vols and Wildcats have been exceptional at holding opponents to poor field goal shooting percentages this season, so don’t expect a high-scoring game on Saturday.

    Tennessee’s opponents have made just 38.9 percent of their field goals this season, and that includes just 42.9 percent of their two-point field goals. Those percentages rank 23rd and 15th nationally, respectively. In SEC play, the Vols are holding opponents to just a 38.6 percent clip overall and a 44.1 shooting percentage on two-point attempts. Both of those percentages rank second in conference play.

    The only SEC team that’s been better in both areas than UT this season? That would be Kentucky.

    Opponents are making just 38.6 percent of their field goals against UK, which ranks 20th nationally. In SEC play, teams are shooting just 38.1 percent against the Wildcats, and only 43.5 percent of their two-point field goal attempts have been made. Both of those are the best in the conference.

    UT’s and UK’s defenses are similar, but their offenses aren’t. Tennessee is making just 42.7 percent of their shots in SEC play this season, and UT is averaging only 65.7 points a game vs. SEC foes. Kentucky, meanwhile, has hit 45.6 percent of their field goals in league play, and they’re averaging 75.8 points a game against SEC teams.

    Second Half Surge

    Over the last handful of games for Tennessee, Jordan Bowden has been non-existent in the first half for one reason or another.

    In the Vols’ last four games, Bowden has totaled just seven points in the first half, going scoreless in the opening half of play against both Kansas and Mississippi State. Bowden has shot an abysmal 1-of-15 from the floor in the first half over the last four games for UT.

    The second half has been a different story, however.

    Bowden is averaging 14.3 points in the second half of Tennessee’s last four games, and he’s scored 57 of his 64 points in the second half over the last two weeks. The senior has shot 54.3 percent (19-of-35) in the second half in his last four games, and he’s been more aggressive as well, getting to the free throw line 17 times in the second half in those four contests, sinking 14 of those free throw attempts.

    The senior’s slow starts have been baffling to say the least, but he’s at least turned it on in the second half to make up for it. But a more consistent Bowden would go a long way in helping the Vols defeat the Wildcats.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.