Prediction Panel: Kentucky vs. No. 19 Tennessee

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    No. 19 Tennessee is back in action on Saturday when it welcomes its rival, the Kentucky Wildcats, to Thompson-Boling Arena for a 1 p.m. ET tip on CBS.

    The Vols (15-5, 8-5 SEC) enter the contest coming off of a 93-73 win over South Carolina on Wednesday night in which Victor Bailey Jr. broke out of his shooting slump with 29 points on 7-for-10 shooting from three. John Fulkerson also broke out of his slump, scoring 19 points and grabbing six rebounds.

    Kentucky (7-13, 6-7 SEC) is coming off of a close 82-78 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville on Tuesday night. The Wildcats allowed the Commodores to come back from a 17-point deficit, but still managed to pull out the win late.

    Tennessee beat Kentucky 82-71 earlier this month on Feb. 6. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combined for 50 points against the Cats, 31 of which came in the second half to erase a Kentucky lead and guide the Vols to a win. Johnson had a season-high 27 points, while Springer had 23, respectively.

    Kentucky leads the all-time series 156-75, dating back to 1910. The Wildcats are 53-51 in Knoxville, but Tennessee has won four of five meetings at home under head coach Rick Barnes. Overall, the Vols have won six of their last nine games against Kentucky.

    A win for the Vols would be Tennessee’s seventh victory in its last 10 games against Kentucky and give them their first home-and-home sweep over the Cats since 2018.

    Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributors Trey Wallace and Blake Von Hagen, make their predictions for Saturday’s game between the Vols and Wildcats:

    Ben’s Pick

    Kentucky is not a good basketball team, but it still manages to play a close game in every single contest it plays. There’s something to be said for that and Tennessee won’t be able to just trot out there and think it’s simply going to win because Kentucky is in the midst of one of its all-time worst seasons. And I don’t believe the Vols will have that mindset, not under Rick Barnes. Tennessee will be locked in on the defensive end and make life tough on a bad Kentucky offense.

    Pick: Tennessee, 71-62

    MVP: Tennessee sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James

    James didn’t play against South Carolina on Wednesday due to a wrist injury, but Barnes expressed optimism following the win that they were expecting James to play against Kentucky. James played a big role in the win over the Cats earlier this month because of his defensive play while defending Keion Brooks in the second half. He’ll be the MVP of this game for what he does defensively as well. Plus, James has really began to find a rhythm on the offensive end of late.

    Trey’s Pick

    The Vols are coming off a game against South Carolina where Victor Bailey Jr. put up a career-high 29 points, as he started as well in place of Vescovi. I don’t expect that type of performance on a nightly basis for Bailey, but I do expect a performance like the one of John Fulkerson. The senior has been in a funk lately, but seemed to breakout of his shell a bit against the Gamecocks. He scored 15 points in the 2nd half, helping the Vols garner the win.

    This upcoming game against Kentucky will be won inside the paint. Now, it doesn’t have to be Pons or Fulkerson scoring 20 points, but the Vols will need a heavy post presence. Look for the guards to attack the basket and try to get the Wildcats into foul trouble. We all remember how the last meeting went. I think this game is the perfect opportunity for Jaden Springer to take advantage of that mid-range jumper. I expect this one to be close until the final five minutes, where the Vols will extend the lead and grab the win.

    Pick: Tennessee, 78-66

    MVP: Tennessee guard Keon Johnson

    I expect Keon Johnson to attack the paint and not settle for off-balance shots. This will be a key game for the freshman and I expect him to lead the Vols to victory.

    Blake’s Pick

    Despite being in the midst of a catastrophic season, Kentucky has only been blown out once in SEC play—it came in an 85-65 loss to conference-leading Alabama. The Wildcats seem to make games close every night, which makes it tough to pick Tennessee to win this game with much margin. The Vols should have had several players regain their confidence on the offensive end following Wednesday’s win, though, which will be an important factor heading down the stretch of the regular season.

    John Fulkerson was held scoreless in the first meeting with Kentucky, but its tough to expect him to play that poorly again on Saturday. Victor Bailey Jr. and Santiago Vescovi both shot the ball extremely well from the outside, which opens up Tennessee’s offense that can go stagnant at times. If Tennessee is able to make this game more physical than last time, the Vols should be able to shut down Kentucky’s offense. I don’t expect this to be a blowout, but Tennessee should notch its first regular-season sweep of the Wildcats since 2018.

    Pick: Tennessee, 73-67

    MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer

    Springer has scored at least 15 points in each of his last four games. He had a team-high 23 in the win at Rupp Arena and seems to be getting better every day. I’ll continue picking him as MVP until I find a reason not to.