No. 19 Vols looking to be ‘locked in’ out of the gates against Kentucky

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    No. 19 Tennessee has a chance to sweep the regular-season series with Kentucky and pick up its seventh win in the last 10 meetings when the two teams meet on Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.

    The Vols overcame a 10-point deficit in the second half of the first meeting this season. They were propelled by a combined 50 points from freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer in the 82-71 win.

    Tennessee has gone 2-1 since that game, beating Georgia and South Carolina while losing to LSU. Wednesday’s 93-73 win over the Gamecocks saw several players break out of offensive slumps.

    Junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. hit 7 of 10 3-pointers and scored a career-high 29 points. He had not scored in double figures since the win over Kansas on Jan. 30.

    “VJ is a confident player, and again I never really thought he was struggling, I just thought he had a couple of bad shooting nights,” Tennessee assistant coach Kim English said Thursday. “He was good at Kentucky, he wasn’t good against Georgia, so he had a couple bad games and then last night was a special night for him as a shooter and as a player.”

    Seniors John Fulkerson and Yves Pons both broke the double-digit mark on Wednesday as well. Fulkerson scored 19 points on 7 of 12 shooting, while Pons made 5 of 6 attempts for 10 points.

    Fulkerson had scored just 16 combined points over his last four games, including a shutout at Kentucky. Tennessee will need Fulkerson to build on Wednesday’s performance.

    “He has to get some easy buckets,” English said. “I thought the guys did a really good job setting him up so he can score some easy ones. He’s still an extremely talented offensive player, but it’s the job of the guards to set up those forwards for easy baskets.”

    Tennessee is still powered by its defense, which ranks third nationally in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings. The Vols held Kentucky to 29 second-half points at Rupp Arena on Feb. 6.

    The Wildcats have been playing their best basketball of the season over the past two weeks. They followed the loss to Tennessee with an 81-80 setback against Arkansas, which is one of the hottest teams in the conference.

    Kentucky finally closed a few games out with victories after those two close losses, beating Auburn and Vanderbilt in its last two games. Freshman guard Brandon Boston Jr. leads Kentucky with 12.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.

    Tennessee held him to six points and four boards at Rupp Arena. He has scored in double figures in all three games since then. Sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. poured in 23 points and completed his double-double with 11 rebounds in the loss to the Vols.

    “Their talent is as good as anyone in America,” English said. “They have a roster that is filled with very good offensive players and really good athletes. Keion Brooks had a career night against us. Devon Askew got going in a really good way. Isaiah Jackson is a one-and-done talent who is just a freak athlete.”

    Tennessee is currently in fourth place in the SEC standings. However, there are two teams just one game ahead of the Vols in the loss column and there are three teams within one game behind them.

    They will need a strong finish to the regular season to maintain or improve their seeding before the SEC Tournament.

    “We want to start it with being locked in on doing what we have to do against Kentucky on Saturday,” English said. “Then, we’ll worry about what’s next after that. I don’t think you can, in this time, look too far ahead. We want to be playing our best basketball absolutely, to finish this conference slate going into the postseason.”