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Kentucky Basketball: Is Tennessee a must-win game for Wildcats?

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Either way, this matchup is a big game for Kentucky.

Mississippi State v Kentucky Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Being a former high school basketball coach, this writer is hesitant to identify regular-season games as must win situations for teams, especially when there are other regular season games to be played before the postseason.

However, in the case of the Kentucky Wildcats, their Tuesday night battle with arch rival Tennessee at Rupp Arena could be as close as it comes to a must win situation in the eyes of the BBN.

The Wildcats sit at 17-6 and 6-4 in SEC play. They had their three game winning streak snapped at Missouri Saturday 69-60 in a game where the Cats were absolutely frigid shooting the ball (31.3% from the field, 10% from three). The Cats also reverted to some bad habits that plagued the team earlier in the season, such as taking ill advised shots, taking shots very early in the shot clock, or playing a lot of one-on-one instead of moving the basketball to find open looks.

That being said, UK played well enough defensively and rebounded the basketball effectively enough to win the game. Sometimes though, it’s hard to overcome poor offense and bad decision making. Kentucky found that out the hard way. Again.

So where do we stand? Is the renewal of the Cats and Vols a must win for UK?

Yes...and no.

It is a big game without question for Kentucky. UK comes into the game with a need to start to gel before tournament time. No team wants to back pedal into the postseason. Kentucky has shown a great ability to be very streaky. When it’s good, it’s really good; when it’s not, it’s really bad.

The Cats are also staring at a stiff SEC schedule as well. UK has dates at Texas A&M, conference leader Auburn, and Florida as well as home dates with Alabama and Missouri. A win over the Vols gives the Cats some much needed traction; a loss could throw the Cats in a tailspin that could be very difficult to recover from.

The #24 Cats are still playing for something too. They can still salvage their conference record and get a double bye in the upcoming SEC tournament in St. Louis in March. Big Blue can also bolster their tournament resume with a victory over a resurgent Tennessee program under the direction of coach Rick Barnes. The Vols sit in a surprising second place in the SEC and a victory over the Vols gives some added traction for Kentucky as they gear up for March Madness.

So yes, the Kentucky Wildcats are in a must win situation against UT.

Or are they?

Without question the Cats could use a win Tuesday night. It would be crazy to think otherwise. But for many of the same reasons as above stating why they are in a must win situation, the Cats are not in a must win deal yet.

The remaining SEC schedule gives the Cats ample opportunity to gain or continue to gain traction going into postseason play. The Cats could lose Tuesday night and still have the opportunity to win out the schedule and hit March rolling. This could be a very tough scenario to accomplish for Kentucky.

Also, even if the Cats drop a couple of their remaining games, the Cats still have the SEC tournament to sharpen up before the NCAA Tournament. The Cats will have the opportunity to march through the field in St. Louis and have a ton of momentum going into the Big Dance. UK could win the tournament or get to the finals and feel pretty good advancing to the NCAA’s. Again, a tough situation for the Cats.

So, depending on how you see it, the Cats and Vols are going to play in an important game for both teams. And depending on how much stock you put on the match up, the game is without question a huge opportunity for the Cats as they begin their march toward the postseason.