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Tennessee Looking To Turn Tide In Highly Anticipated Kentucky Rematch

Porter Moser 2-14 (Pre-Texas)

Jan. 22 was not a good day for anyone wearing the orange-and-white in Lexington, Kentucky. The Wildcats jumped on Tennessee early and kept their foot on the pedal, annihilating the Vols, 107-79.

With the top 20 rematch approaching, Tennessee’s seven-game SEC win streak has done little to make the Vols’ players forget their experience in Lexington.

“It was the worst feeling I have had in basketball,” Zakai Zeigler said. “We just know we don’t want to have that feeling again. We have to come mentally and physically prepared.”

“I was hurt,” Josiah-Jordan James said. “Everybody was. I was really just sick to my stomach, but credit to them they played a really good game. It was tough but I feel like since then we’ve really really come a long way. I feel like the team we have now is night-and-day compared to the team then.”

There’s no doubt that Tennessee has come a long way since these teams met last month. The Vols have won seven-of-eight games and just as importantly they’ve found some semblance of offensive consistency.

In Tennessee’s nine games against power six opponents before the first matchup with Kentucky, the Vols averaged 65.5 points per game. In the eight games since, they’re averaging 72.1 points per game.

On the other side, Kentucky used the first matchup to catapult them to an elite run of basketball. The Wildcats only loss since came at Auburn and Kentucky guards TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler both dealt with injuries during the game.

Kentucky has won 10 of its last 11 games including double-digit road victories at Kansas, Alabama and Florida.

It won’t take a perfect game for Tennessee to beat Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena, but the Vols will have to play very well. If Tennessee makes the careless mistakes it did in Lexington, they won’t have a chance against the No. 4 Wildcats.

“The way we turned the ball over and allowed them to score a lot off turnovers, you’re not going to win basketball games anywhere doing that,” Barnes said. “Transition defense is also important because they play as fast as any team does in the country. If you’re late getting back or not on edge, they’re going to score quickly, so we have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball.”

Despite the first loss, Tennessee isn’t focused on revenge against its border rival. The Vols focus is on playing a complete 40 minutes to their full potential.

“We just know and do exactly what we have to do every day in practice,” Zeigler said. “It’s not a revenge game or anything, we just have to look at it as we got to continue what we’re doing and do what’s working.”

Kentucky star guard TyTy Washington (12.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG) is questionable — and seems to be trending towards doubtful — for Tuesday’s game after exiting Saturday’s win at Florida with a leg injury.

With Washington possibly sidelined, Tennessee’s full attention will be on center Oscar Tshiebwe. The West Virginia transfer has been one of the best players in the country, averaging 16.4 points and 15.3 rebounds per game this season.

At 6-foot-9, 255 pounds, Tshiebwe is an absolute nightmare matchup for Tennessee. The Vols’ interior defense has been solid this season, but they have no enforcing presence inside. With Olivier Nkamhoua sidelined the rest of the season, Tennessee’s frontcourt is without its most athletic and physical player.

“You can’t talk about national player of the year without bringing his name up,” Barnes said. “The numbers that he is putting up are incredible, and the consistency with which he does it with. The fact that he does it when every coach before the game is trying to slow him down; no one has found a way to do that. John (Calipari) and his staff have done a great job putting him in areas to be successful and Tshiebwe has responded well to that.”

Tip-off at Thompson-Boling Arena is set for 9 p.m. ET Tuesday night. Karl Ravech, Jimmy Dykes and Marty Smith are on the call for ESPN.

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