Mark Story

In the coming weeks, UK and UT may be dueling for more than a SEC men’s hoops title

John Calipari saw plenty to like in UK’s win over South Carolina

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about the play of EJ Montgomery, Reid Travis, PJ Washington and others after the team’s 76-48 win over South Carolina on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at Rupp Arena. The Cats have won nine straight.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about the play of EJ Montgomery, Reid Travis, PJ Washington and others after the team’s 76-48 win over South Carolina on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at Rupp Arena. The Cats have won nine straight.

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.

Ray Mears.JPG
Tennessee Coach Ray Mears, shown in a 1970 photo, pinned two painful defeats on Kentucky in 1976-77 that cost the Wildcats a chance to play NCAA Tournament games in Rupp Arena. Knoxville News Sentinel

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.

PJ Washington drives vs Grant Williams.JPG
Kentucky forward PJ Washington (25) drove against Tennessee star Grant Williams (2) during last season’s SEC Tournament finals in St. Louis. Kentucky beat Tennessee 77-72, avenging two regular-season losses to the Volunteers. Alex Slitz

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.


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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.

Calipari at Tennessee.JPG
Kentucky Coach John Calipari and the Wildcats have lost their last three games against Tennessee at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Alex Slitz

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.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.