With a road win against Mississippi State, the Kentucky Wildcats have put themselves back inside the tournament, but by the smallest of margins. Still on the bubble, the Wildcats will have a chance to put themselves firmly in the field as the top-ten-ranked Tennessee Volunteers come to Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Back in January, Kentucky entered the first matchup of the season series coming off back-to-back embarrassing losses to Alabama and South Carolina. However, the Wildcats found something, beating Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena and igniting a six-game SEC win streak.
While Kentucky is an improved team compared to what they were early in the season, Tennessee is still the best defensive team in the country. Earlier this week, the Volunteers beat No. 1 Alabama, holding their explosive offense to a season-low 59 points.
Both teams will likely not enter the contest at full strength. Kentucky has been without CJ Fredrick (cracked rib) and Sahvir Wheeler (ankle) for the last three games, and Tennessee has been without two key players of their own, Julian Phillips (hip flexor) and Josiah-Jordan James (ankle).
With that said, a win on Saturday will not come easy. However, if Kentucky can win, they should take themselves off the bubble for the time being, and it will be their first season sweep of the Volunteers since 2012.
Making this even more special is Kentucky will honor its 1996, ‘97 and ‘98 teams this weekend, which you can read more about here.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Kentucky’s keys to the game.
Rebound, Rebound, Rebound
In all six of Tennessee’s losses, their opponent has done one of two things: hit 10+ three-pointers, or win the rebounding battle. The Wildcats have only hit ten three-pointers in two games since November, therefore they must win the rebounding battle.
In the first matchup of the season series, Kentucky was able to accomplish this, outrebounding the Volunteers by 18. This mark is still Tennessee’s biggest rebounding deficit of the season. Within that is an even more important stat, Kentucky allowed just three offensive rebounds.
Grabbing 36.7 percent of their misses, Tennessee is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, ranked 4th in the country just above Kentucky in 5th. Given that Tennessee’s offense is prone to droughts, limiting their possessions will be significant.
With Julian Phillips out, one of Tennessee’s best drivers, they will be more prone to shooting threes, and they have the personnel to do it. Tyreke Key, Santiago Vescovi, and Zakai Zeigler attempt at least four three-pointers per game converting on at least 31 percent.
Against Kentucky, these guys will likely be looking for their shot. However, while it doesn’t feel like it, Kentucky has defended the perimeter at a decent clip this season, allowing just 6.4 made threes per game.
On Saturday, the Wildcats must fight over screens and force Tennessee’s guards to drive.
Match the Physicality
With 42 total fouls in the first matchup, it is safe to say that the game is quite physical. This time around is going to be no different, as physicality is a key part of Tennessee’s suffocating defense.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have seen this Tennessee defense once before this season, and they are coming off a win against Mississippi State, a top-five defensive team that plays just as physical. Tennessee’s bigs strive around the rim, especially in screen action. If the Wildcats can fight through screens and push Tennessee’s post players off the block, their percentages fall significantly.
Both John Calipari and the players have adopted the mantra, “refuse to lose”. A loss on Saturday won’t end Kentucky’s tournament hopes, but it is important to see if their fight continues down the stretch.
Kentucky Basketball (17-9) vs. Tennessee Volunteers (20-6)
Time/Date: 1:00 pm ET on Saturday, February 18th, 2023.
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
TV Channel: CBS
Online Stream: CBS Sports Live
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: SEC Network (check local listings)
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Tennessee -2. ESPN’s matchup predictor doesn’t have much confidence in Kentucky, giving them just a 27.5 percent chance at the win. Yet this is better than the 9.4 percent before Kentucky’s win over the Volunteers in January. Bart Torvik gives Kentucky nearly the same odds, at 28 percent, while KenPom has it at 36%.
Predictions: Bart Torvik picks the Wildcats to lose by two possessions, 69-66. KenPom is going with a 69-65 Vols win, while TeamRankings (via ESPN) has it at 68-65 for the road team.