Fasten your seatbelts as ESPN’s College GameDay follows a top-five matchup to Lexington, KY for their second appearance this season.
The fifth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats will play host to the top-ranked Tennessee Volunteers Saturday evening at Rupp Arena. As Southeastern Conference play nears its end, this weekend’s game could be the nation’s game of the year.
The last time these two teams met on the basketball court resulted in Kentucky winning their fourth-consecutive SEC Tournament championship. That came after Tennessee had sweet the regular season series, 2-0. This time around, Tennessee returns nearly their entire roster while Kentucky once again has had the task of creating a new system of chemistry.
So far, the Wildcats have responded well to their eye-opening defeat by the Duke Blue Devils to start their season. Kentucky has won in many fashions while losing to just Seton Hall, Alabama and LSU by a combined five points. Over the course of their season, the Wildcats have taken down the likes of Auburn, Kansas, Louisville, Mississippi State (twice) and North Carolina.
This Saturday, though, Calipari and his group will face a challenge unlike any they’ve seen this year. Tennessee boasts arguably the best trio in the country between point guard Jordan Bone, shooting guard Admiral Schofield and power forward Grant Williams. Bone is one of the nation’s best assist men while Schofield compliments him with a rare combination of toughness and elite shooting ability.
Williams, however, is the headlining junior with aspirations to be honored as the conference’s best player. Needless to say, the Wildcats will have their hands full.
On Kentucky’s side, point guard Ashton Hagans has suddenly hit a slump and will need to thrust that aside come Saturday evening. His defense on Bone will be key to slowing the flow of the country’s second-ranked offense. Shooting guard Tyler Herro, who has played his best basketball against elite competition, will have to do so at both ends as he draws the call of Schofield.
Star sophomore PJ Washington, the team’s heart and soul, will need to play the game of his life against Williams. Washington chose to return to Kentucky last summer with plans of not just improving his game but because he has unfinished business in the NCAA Tournament. With defeating the nation’s top-ranked team likely propelling Kentucky to a one seed, Washington’s time to answer the call is now.
While there are many names that headline this matchup, the game could very well come down to who has the better/more energized bench. For Kentucky, names such as EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley come to mind as players who could enter the game and give their team a boost. Though he’s the team’s starting center, Reid Travis is a dark horse candidate to “bruise up” the Volunteers inside the painted area.
Tennessee is one of the best defensive units at defending two-point shots, therefore putting a significant amount of emphasis on the Wildcats’ ability to knock down outside shots and free up space around the basket.
When it comes to KenPom, they believe this matchup is about as even as you’ll see in a clash of top-10 teams. Tennessee is ranked fifth overall thanks to their second-ranked offensive efficiency.
Kentucky isn’t far behind at seventh overall, though their 18th-ranked defensive efficiency means they would struggle to keep up with the Vols if it turns into a shootout.
However, Kentucky ranks eighth in defensive efficiency, whereas Tennessee ranks 40th. That’s where the mismatch in favor of Kentucky lies, as the Vols have struggled to win games with their defense.
It comes without a doubt that Saturday night’s game will be this year’s prime showdown in Rupp Arena.
Though Kentucky enters the game of a controversial loss to LSU on Tuesday, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index is giving the Wildcats a 59.3% chance of victory.
The official game line is Kentucky favored by three points. It was hard to see the spread being anything other than a one-score line, though one sportsbook has Kentucky listed as a four-point favorite in Rupp, as well as Tennessee pegged as a four-point favorite when the two face off in Knoxville in a few weeks.
- 14-10 vs. the spread this season
- 7-7 vs. the spread as home team
- 7-4 vs. the spread in the SEC
- 9-6 vs. the spread with 2-3 days off
- 13-9-1 vs. the spread this season
- 5-1 vs. the spread as away team
- 7-4 vs. the spread in the SEC
- 8-8 vs. the spread with 2-3 days off
ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Jordan Schultz and Myron Medcalf are siding with the nation’s top team, as all four are predicting a Volunteer win on the road.
Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated is going with a Wildcats victory, though, via a 77-75 finish.
In sync with Beller is TopBet, predicting a 74-71 “upset” by Kentucky.
KenPom is projecting a 74-72 victory by the home team.
Cats Illustrated’s Jeff Drummond and Travis Graf are both siding with Kentucky while Justin Rowland expects Tennessee to edge out the Wildcats.
Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader predicts Kentucky to be the beneficiaries of a nail-biter, 70-69.
Tuesday’s loss to LSU was certainly controversial but also an overall mishap by the Wildcats. Kentucky had a numerous amount of chances to close out the game, yet they were stagnant and later fell in defeat.
On Saturday, rest assured Calipari will have his team ready for the Volunteers and their prolific offense. Backed by their home crowd, Kentucky should be primed to come out and ready to play an intense 40 minutes of basketball.
With Herro and Washington leading the way on offense, Hagans and his defense will be the difference in the outcome of this game. A Kentucky win avenges Tuesday’s hiccup and re-fuels their momentum for another tough stretch of SEC play.
Final Score: Kentucky 72, Tennessee 70