The most underrated rivalry in college basketball will be renewed on Saturday night inside of Rupp Arena when No. 11 Tennessee (12-4, 5-4 SEC) and Kentucky (5-11, 4-5 SEC) tip off at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The Vols enter the contest coming off of an embarrassing 52-50 loss to Ole Miss in Oxford on Saturday night. Tennessee jumped out to an early 23-15 lead, but the offense sputtered as it didn’t make a basket during a 13-minute stretch in the second half and turned it over 11 times in the process. The Rebels went on a 19-4 run while the Vols struggled to pull off the upset.
Kentucky is coming off of a 75-70 loss to Missouri in Colombia on Wednesday night and have lost five out of its last six games. The Cats went on a 15-3 run to start the second half and cut the Tigers’ lead to one, but then went on a scoring drought before dropping yet another game.
Tennessee trails the all-time series with Kentucky, 156-74. The Wildcats are 91-18 when the game is played in Lexington. The Vols, however, have won five of their last eight games against the Cats.
A win over Kentucky would be Tennessee’s sixth in the last nine contests between the two teams. It would also be UT’s seventh all-time win at Rupp Arena, make Rick Barnes the only active head coach to lead his team to at least three victories at Rupp Arena, and make seniors John Fulkerson and Yves Pons the first Vols to play in three wins at Rupp Arena.
Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributor Blake Von Hagen, make their predictions for Saturday’s game between the Vols and Wildcats:
Both teams are desperate for a win for different reasons. Tennessee is looking to get its season back on track while Kentucky is simply in the midst of an all-time miserable season. The Vols are without a doubt the better team in this matchup, but it must find a way to be more efficient offensively if they want to avoid a second consecutive bad loss.
Kentucky’s defense isn’t the best matchup for Tennessee’s offense. The Vols are at their best when they’re attacking the rim, an area the Wildcats thrive in. Kentucky has the best block percentage in the SEC thanks to freshman Isaiah Jackson, as the defense as a whole ranks 13th nationally in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.
Where the Cats struggle is on offense. Kentucky can’t shoot a beach ball into the ocean and is likely the worst offense the Vols will face the remainder of the regular season. UT will need to slow the game down and force the Cats to produce in their half-court offense.
Tennessee’s defense hasn’t been the issue of late. Against a Kentucky offense that struggles mightily, the Vols will turn in yet another strong defensive performance and get back in the win column.
Pick: Tennessee, 59-53
MVP: Tennessee sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James
Jackson is a terrific rim protector, but he, along with Wake Forest grad transfer Olivier Sarr, tend to pick up fouls. With an increased effort to penetrate the Kentucky defense to create foul trouble or generate kick-outs, Tennessee’s guards will benefit from some open looks.
Josiah-Jordan James looked terrific in the first half of the Ole Miss game and I think we’ll see that Josiah-Jordan James show up once again; and for 40 minutes. He played exceptionally well against Kansas last Saturday and his shooting stroke looked great against the Rebels when he was aggressive. Tennessee’s coaching staff has encouraged him to continue to be aggressive and they’ll see that pay off in Rupp Arena on Saturday night.
I want to think the reaction to Tennessee’s midweek loss was blown out of proportion. It was a tough scheduling spot—a road contest sandwiched between games against Kansas and Kentucky. It’s almost impossible to say it was a complete overreaction from Tennessee fans, though. The loss highlighted the Vols’ propensity to go ice cold on the offensive end of the court. As good as the defense has been—and it has been nothing short of fantastic—it doesn’t matter if Tennessee can’t consolidate the effort with buckets on the other end.
Kentucky is about as intriguing of a matchup as it gets. The Wildcats have the historical edge, but they are in the midst of one of the worst seasons in program history. No one would be surprised if they find a way to win this game at Rupp Arena, though. I think this one is going to be won or lost for Tennessee on the boards. Kentucky is the fifth-tallest team in college basketball and is No. 35 in offensive rebounding percentage. Tennessee has struggled to box out and go after the ball in SEC play. This game is a complete toss-up, but the Vols get the nod due to experience and better defense.
Pick: Tennessee, 65-64
MVP: Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson
Fulkerson hasn’t been particularly impressive this season, but he came up huge in the win at Rupp Arena last year. He will be able to draw on that experience on Saturday night.