In what will be the final season of college basketball in a Rupp Arena that seats over 23,000, ancient border rivals Tennessee and Kentucky could spend the final month of the men’s regular season dueling for both the SEC championship and, possibly, an even greater reward.
If you like sports with historical symmetry, a battle between No. 1 UT (21-1, 9-0 SEC) and No. 5 UK (19-3, 8-1 SEC) for league superiority is the perfect way for Rupp Arena as we’ve known it to go out before renovation downsizes the venue to some 20,500 seats next season.
In 1976-77, the year Rupp opened, the Wildcats and Volunteers also battled memorably for SEC bragging rights — and also for something that could have been more valuable.
That season, Coach Ray Mears and the Volunteers scored two narrow wins over Joe B. Hall and the Wildcats. UT bested UK 71-67 in overtime in the rivals’ first-ever meeting in Rupp Arena. The Big Orange also later prevailed over the Big Blue in Knoxville, winning 81-79.
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Those two UT wins over UK meant the Volunteers (22-6, 16-2 SEC), not the Wildcats (26-4, 16-2 SEC), were seeded in the 1977 NCAA Tournament Mideast Region with a chance to advance to the Final Four via a path that ran through Rupp Arena.
This season, Rick Barnes and UT and John Calipari and UK may be battling for similar stakes. The 2019 NCAA Tournament South Region rounds of 16 and of eight will be played in the KFC Yum Center in Louisville.
Top seed in the South could be the prize as UT and UK duke it out down the stretch — including head-to-head meetings in Rupp Feb. 16 and at Thompson-Boling Arena March 2nd.
Coming off a gutty overtime win at Mississippi State Wednesday night, No. 21 LSU (18-4, 8-1 SEC) is also alive for conference primacy.
This season, the four NCAA Tourney region sites are Washington D.C. (Capital One Arena) for the East; Kansas City (Sprint Center) for the Midwest; Anaheim, Calif., (Honda Center) for the West; and Louisville for the South.
According to the NCAA Tournament bracketing principles, “If two teams from the same natural region are in contention for the same bracket position, the team ranked higher in the seed list shall remain in its natural region.”
The UK campus is 77 miles from the KFC Yum Center. However, at a distance of 246 miles, the Louisville arena is also the closest 2019 NCAA regional to UT.
Now, it’s possible that Tennessee and Kentucky could both end up as No. 1 seeds yet neither get to play in the Yum Center.
If ACC powers Duke and Virginia were the top two overall seeds in the field of 68, then the number one seed would presumably choose Washington, D.C. (116 miles from UVa., 262 miles from Duke). That would mean the No. 2 overall seed would likely go to Louisville (490 miles from Virginia; 539 miles from Duke).
For that matter, if Big Ten leader Michigan were to become higher on the one-seed line than UK or UT, the KFC Yum Center (346 miles from Ann Arbor) would be the closest 2019 NCAA tourney region for the Wolverines, too.
Playing NCAA Tournament games inside the commonwealth would be an obvious boon for UK. Since the KFC Yum Center opened in 2010-11, the Wildcats are 4-0 there in NCAA tourney contests.
With both Kentucky and Tennessee having nine SEC regular-season games left, the Volunteers currently have the upper hand.
Through Feb. 6, UT is one game ahead in the league standings and ranked above Kentucky in the new NCAA NET rankings (UT four, UK five). (LSU is 17th in the NET).
With both Tennessee and Kentucky undefeated at home, the remaining road schedule could prove decisive — and it may slightly favor the Wildcats.
UK goes to Mississippi State (Saturday), Missouri (Feb. 19), Tennessee (March 2) and Mississippi (March 5). Tennessee travels to Kentucky (Feb. 16), LSU (Feb. 23), Mississippi (Feb. 27) and Auburn (March 9).
The SEC Tournament in Nashville could ultimately serve as a tiebreaker between UT and UK in terms of NCAA tourney standing.
In 1977, because of its two losses to Tennessee, Kentucky had to settle for the East Region, where it fell one-win short of the Final Four.
UT failed to take advantage of the chance to play round of 16 and elite eight games within 175 miles of its campus in Rupp Arena by losing its NCAA tourney opener to Syracuse in Baton Rouge, La.
As for 2019, what seems clear is that for Kentucky to have any chance to play March Madness games in Louisville, it has to be ahead of Tennessee in the seeding on Selection Sunday.