What to Know: Tennessee at No. 6 Kentucky

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    The SEC’s oldest and most bitter rivalry in men’s basketball will be center stage on Tuesday night.

    Tennessee (16-13, 8-8 SEC) travels up to Lexington to take on the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats (24-5, 14-2) for a 9:00 PM Eastern tip-off on ESPN. Tuesday will mark the 230th meeting between the Vols and Wildcats in men’s basketball.

    All-time, Kentucky leads the series 156-73, and that includes a 91-17 edge when the two face-off in Lexington. The Vols have won just twice in Lexington since 2000, but UT has beaten Kentucky four of the last seven times the two teams have played.

    The Vols enter Tuesday’s game coming off a surprising 63-58 victory over Florida on Saturday that ended UT’s two-game losing streak. Kentucky, meanwhile, has won eight-straight games and just clinched the regular season SEC title on Saturday.

    Kentucky still has plenty to play for, though, as they’re trying to push their way into the conversation for one of the top eight overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee is playing for any sort of postseason life, and a victory over the Wildcats would be the feather in UT’s cap for their bid for the NCAA Tournament or a NIT berth.

    Here are the most important things to know and watch for during Tuesday night’s rivalry game.

    Rough Times at Rupp

    Tennessee has had issues beating Kentucky on the road throughout the history of the oldest rivalry in the SEC. But since the Wildcats have started playing in Rupp Arena, the Vols’ luck has been even worse.

    UT is just 17-91 all-time against Kentucky in Lexington, but the Vols have won only five times total in Rupp Arena since the Wildcats started playing there in the 1976-77 season. Tennessee got a win the first time they played in Rupp, defeating No. 2 Kentucky 71-67, but they’ve won only four other times since then, getting victories in 1979, 1999, 2006, and 2018.

    Since Kentucky began playing in Rupp Arena, Tennessee is just 5-37 against UK there in non-SEC Tournament games.

    The last time the Vols faced Kentucky in Rupp, the Wildcats demolished the then-No. 1 Volunteers. The No. 5 Cats beat Tennessee 86-69 in dominating fashion. The Vols would return the favor in Knoxville two weeks later with a 71-52 win over the Wildcats, however.

    Kentucky has only lost once at home so far this season. Tennessee is just 3-7 in true road games this year.

    All-Around Good

    Kentucky not only has a good, efficient offense, but they also boast a productive and debilitating defense as well.

    The Wildcats are one of just 17 teams in all of Division I to be ranked in the top 40 of the adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency ratings according to Ken Pomeroy. Kentucky’s offensive efficiency ranks 30th while their defense ranks 38th.

    Kentucky’s offense is dynamic inside the three-point line, making over 50 percent of their two-point field goals. The Wildcats’ 46.1 percent shooting percentage on the year ranks 51st nationally, and their 74.6 points a game ranks 90th. Defensively, Kentucky is holding teams to just 38.6 percent shooting, which ranks 13th in the country. Teams are only making 44.2 percent of their shots inside the three-point line (21st) and only 29.9 percent from three (35th).

    Point guard Ashton Hagans and forward Nick Richards have been big reasons why the Wildcats have succeeded on defense, as Hagans leads the team with 2.0 steals a game while Richards leads the team with 2.2 blocks a contest. Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey have been forces on offense, as Quickley is averaging 16.3 points a game and Maxey is putting up 14.0 points a game. Richards is also averaging 13.9 points and leads the team with 7.8 rebounds a game.

    The only other teams Tennessee has faced this season that are as effective on both ends of the floor as Kentucky have been Kansas, Florida State, and Wisconsin. Counting UT’s previous match-up with the Wildcats this season, the Vols are 0-4 against those teams.

    Hottest Team in the SEC

    This past weekend, Tennessee faced a Florida team that came into Saturday’s match-up playing some of the best basketball they had played all season. The Vols will once again be facing a hot team on Tuesday night in Lexington.

    Kentucky enters Tuesday’s contest having won eight-straight games, and the Wildcats have won 12 of their last 13 games. Their only loss in that stretch was on the road against then-No. 17 Auburn, 75-66.

    Since then, the Wildcats haven’t lost, and their second win in this current eight-game winning streak came against Tennessee.

    Kentucky has outscored their opponents an average of 73.5 to 65.4 during their eight-game winning streak, and the Wildcats are shooting 46.5 percent as a team in that stretch. Their opponents are making just 38.5 percent of their field goal attempts in that span.

    Part of the reason Kentucky has had so much success has been because of the play of sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley. In his last eight games, Quickley is averaging 21.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists a game while shooting 45.8 percent from three and 93.4 percent from the free throw line.

    Thanks to that winning streak, Kentucky has clinched the regular season SEC title. Their 73-66 victory over Auburn on Saturday gave the Wildcats the regular season crown and also awarded them the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament.

    Need Another Big-Time Win

    Tennessee has had a rough, rough time getting marquee wins this season.

    Tuesday’s contest against Kentucky qualifies as a Quadrant 1 match-up for the Vols. Quadrant 1 wins are awarded if teams beat teams ranked 1-30 in the NET rankings at home, beat teams ranked 1-75 in the NET on the road, or beat teams 1-50 in the NET in neutral site games.

    So far this season, the Vols are just 1-9 in Quadrant 1 games.

    The Vols do own six Quadrant 2 victories, but UT has struggled mightily against the best teams on their schedule. Tennessee’s only Quadrant 1 victory was their road win over Alabama back on February 4th.

    Against teams currently in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings, Tennessee is just 3-9. Against teams currently in the top 50 of the NET rankings, the Vols are 3-7.

    Kentucky is currently ranked 14th in the NET rankings and 26th in the KenPom rankings. Tennessee ranks 69th in the NET and 67th on KenPom.

    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.