At this point, the Kentucky Wildcats’ season comes down to winning the SEC Tournament or bust. With their current record, even making the NIT would be in question.
But there is also the matter of playing for pride. And with Big Blue Nation behind them, the Wildcats will certainly fight until the end of the season.
Their next test will come on Saturday when the Tennessee Volunteers come to town. Tennessee was the preseason favorite to win the SEC coming into the season, but they have struggled to score lately and currently sit at 5-4 in conference play.
Despite taking it to Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, the Volunteers have only won one away game (at Texas A&M) since December 30th. They struggle mightily on the road, especially when it comes to scoring. That sounds like another team I know.
Kentucky comes into the game desperate for a quality win. Tennessee is likely to drop from their No. 11 AP ranking after their loss to Ole Miss, but this is likely Kentucky’s last top 25 team on the schedule. Of course, they will play the Volunteers again down the line. But their better chance at picking up a victory is in Rupp Arena.
If you take away the Kansas game where Tennessee was out of their minds, they have averaged only 54.8 points per game in their last five games. Taking away Kentucky’s win against LSU, they have put up 62.5 points per game.
So for as much as everyone has complained about Kentucky’s offensive production, the Volunteers away from Knoxville have struggled even more over the last three weeks.
Tennessee is led in scoring by everyone’s favorite SEC opponent, John Fulkerson, with 11 points to go with 5.9 boards per game. After scoring a career-high 27 points in the Vols’ win in Rupp Arena last season, Fulkerson has yet to hit 20 points this season.
The Volunteers are a very balanced team offensively with seven players averaging over eight points per game.
However, it seems that their most important player is Jaden Springer. Tennessee has only lost one game since January 2nd where Springer has been available.
The freshman guard has averaged 9.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.7 rebounds per game when he has been available. But he is the glue that holds this offense together, and he has also shot 56.3% from deep, even though he does not take a ton of three-point shots.
Coming into the season, many expected senior forward Yves Pons to be the Vols’ best player and one of the best defenders in college basketball. He won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award last season after averaging 10.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
As a senior, Pons has actually seen his production drop, as he’s averaging 9.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while not recording a block in his last two games. He’s still one of the league’s best defenders and will make life very hard on a Kentucky team already struggling to put the ball in the basket.
Amazingly, Tennessee doesn’t have a single player averaging 30 minutes this season. Junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. (10.4 ppg), freshman guard Keon Johnson (9.0 ppg), sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi (8.7 ppg and 3.1 apg) and Josiah-Jordan James (8.3 ppg and 5.3 rpg) round out the remaining Vols averaging at least 20 minutes per game.
Overall, Tennessee is a poor shooting team from the outside. But they are a very athletic team that creates easy looks through penetration and using their athleticism to get in the right position.
Isaiah Jackson could play a critical role on Saturday in eliminating the easy looks for Tennessee. He may be the only guy that can keep up with the Volunteers near the basket.
And, of course, there is the controversy surrounding Terrence Clarke’s potential role in Saturday’s game. If he is able to play and if Tennessee does not randomly catch fire from the outside, this should be a close basketball game. We will find out on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Kentucky Wildcats (5-11) vs Tennessee Volunteers (12-4)
Game Time: 8 pm ET on Saturday, February 6th.
Location: Rupp Arena
TV Channel: ESPN
Online Stream: WatchESPN and fuboTV (free trial).
Radio: Tom Leach and Mike Pratt will have the UK radio network call on 630 AM, 98.1 FM in Lexington and on the UK Sports Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and the SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: Tennessee opened as a 3.5-point favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Tennessee a 74% chance at winning. KenPom gives the Vols a 59% chance of victory.
Predictions: KenPom projects Tennessee to win 62-59. TeamRankings has the Vols coming away with a 72-65 win.