Kentucky and Tennessee are assured of making history before the opening tip. It’s the first Southeastern Conference game between two teams ranked in the top five in more than a decade. For those scoring at home, the last such game saw No. 2 Kentucky defeat No. 3 Florida 69-67 on March 8, 2003.
However unnecessary, that’s one more reason to think Rupp Arena will be the stage for a big game Saturday night.
Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes tried to give UK-UT some perspective. “I do not think this game is going to define our season or Kentucky’s season,” he said on Friday. “There is too much basketball left to play.”
Kentucky Coach John Calipari spoke of the game as a way to reassess. He noted defensive lapses in the second halves of the Cats’ last two games: the hang-on-for-dear-life victory at Mississippi State and the controversial loss to LSU on Tuesday.
UK went from a (celebrated) “defensive team to giving up layups,” Calipari said. “How does this happen? We play the first half. Then in the second half, it’s not playing.”
Calipari offered a reason for half and half not.
“There becomes an arrogance when you’re winning,” he said. “And we kind of got away from what makes us good.”
To put it mildly, Tennessee presents a challenge to Kentucky’s defense. The Vols rank first in the nation in assists (20.0 per game), second in assist-to-turnover ratio and third in shooting (51.5 percent).
When calling Tennessee’s 85-73 victory over South Carolina on Wednesday, the announcers spoke of UT being “San Antonio Spurs-esque” with its passing.
“They’re not going to beat themselves,” Calipari said. “And they’re going to create opportunities, and they shoot the ball well. You better play good. There better not be any tentativeness. Let it go and go play.”
Tennessee, 23-1 and riding a 19-game winning streak (longest active streak in Division I), has an overwhelming advantage in experience. Ken Pomeroy rates Kentucky No. 350 in experience. That’s out of 353 Division I teams. He rates Tennessee No. 56.
One of the five freshmen in UK’s rotation, EJ Montgomery, said this experience translates in how the Vols’ “trust and know how each other plays. We’re still new to each other.”
In anticipation of a “roughhouse game,” Calipari cited rebounding as a key.
“They’re physical,” he said of the Vols. “They fight for second- and third-opportunities to rebound. We’re struggling with rebounding attempts right now. … If you don’t block out, they’re jumping over your back.”
PJ Washington is a player who has had fewer rebound attempts of late, said Calipari, who took no chances by adding that fewer attempts equal fewer rebounds. In the last three games, Washington has 17 rebounds. That’s fewer than Reid Travis (26), Montgomery (25) and Keldon Johnson (18).
Calipari noted shooting as another key area.
“They force you to make some jump shots,” Calipari said before again touting — with a slight adjustment — this UK team’s shooting ability. He amended best shooting team to ‘one of my best’ three-point shooting teams.”
Whatever happens in Rupp Arena on Saturday night, it will take place in a big-game atmosphere.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Johnson said. “You come to Kentucky to play big games. … We’re coming out ready to compete.”
Of course, big games are nothing new for Tennessee. The Vols have already played teams ranked higher than No. 5 Kentucky: defeating then-No. 1 Gonzaga 76-73 and losing to then-No. 2 Kansas 87-81.
Barnes said Tennessee’s experience with big-game drama extends to last season.
“A year ago, we were the highest-rated SEC team in the country all through February and March,” he said. “So we’ve been in big games. We know it. I think our guys have handled all that stuff OK.”
Incidentally, Tennessee is 6-0 in “true” road games this season. “We have been a really good road team,” Barnes said earlier this season. The Vols on the road “really bond and come together.”
Calipari spoke of the game as a way to measure where Kentucky is at on its developmental curve.
“There’s a lot of growth left in us,” he said. “A lot of it is a confidence.”
Or lack thereof.
Added Calipari: “Let’s see who we are against the best team in the country.”
No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky
When: 8 p.m.
Records: UT 23-1 (11-0 SEC); UK 20-4 (9-2 SEC)
Series: UK leads 154-71
Last meeting: UK won 77-72 in SEC Tournament championship game in St. Louis on March 11, 2018
Radio: WBUL-98.1, WLAP-630