8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Kentucky -3, Over/Under: 145
SEC Powerhouses collide tonight in Lexington, as the Top-Ranked Tennessee Volunteers travel to Rupp Arena for a titanic showdown with the Fifth-Ranked Kentucky Wildcats, with plenty of Postseason implications on the line. Riding high on a 19-game winning streak, Tennessee (23-1, 11-0 in SEC) now enters the most crucial part of their schedule; they will meet the Wildcats twice over the next two weeks, while also encountering the white-hot LSU Tigers in between those contests, which could very well cement their standing as Southeast Conference Champion and a No. One Seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now in his fourth season in Knoxville, Rick Barnes has the Volunteers firing on all cylinders, sporting a perfect league record on the strength of one of the more experienced rotations in the country. Indeed, this year’s Vols’ appears to be culmination of the groundwork laid during his first two years with the Program, with four Juniors and seven Seniors factoring prominently in said rotation. Chief among them has been Junior Forward Grant Williams (19.4 PTS, 57.9% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.6 BLK, 31.8 PER), the reigning SEC Player of the Year, who for all intents and purposes has been even better in 2018-2019, averaging career-highs in scoring (19.4), Field Goal Percentage (57.9%), Rebounds (7.4), Assists (3.5), and Steals (1.2). In three meeting with Kentucky last season, in which Tennessee went 2-1, Williams made quite an impact, averaging 14.3 Points on 52.0% shooting from the field, along with 6.7 Rebounds, 3.0 Assists, and 1.3 Steals. However, he’s far from the only weapon in Barnes’ arsenal, for this has been a pretty damn balanced rotation, with five different players scoring in double-figures, including Senior Guard Admiral Schofield (16.7 PTS, 48.8% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.2 PER) and Junior Backcourt Mates, Jordan Bone (13.2 PTS, 45.9% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 6.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 18.8 PER) and Jordan Bowden (11.5 PTS, 47.8% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 3.3 REB 2.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.2 PER). These guys help comprise the most efficient Offense in the Southeastern Conference, leading the conference in Scoring (85.5), Field Goal Percentage (52.2%), Two-Point Field Goal Percentage (58.0%), Free-Throw Percentage (82.8%), Assists (18.7), all the while committing the fewest Turnovers (10.5).
When we last saw them, the Volunteers had just wrapped a school-record nineteenth consecutive victory, besting South Carolina 85-73 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. This particular affair served as a showcase for just how strong this team actually is. Consider this for a moment; the Gamecocks knocked down a staggering 14-of-23 from beyond the arc (a school-record 60.9%), while the hosts only received a paltry Eight Points from the aforementioned Williams, and there was still a double-digit margin separating the two combatants for the final 28:30 of play. Despite the visiting side outscoring them by Fifteen Points, it’s not like the Vols struggled from distance themselves; they drilled 9-of-20 attempts (45.0%) from downtown, with Bowden coming off the bench to hit 4-of-6 threes (66.7%). However, while they can certainly make use of the Money Ball, it really hasn’t been their thing this year; Tennessee has made a stellar 38.9% (3rd in SEC) of their attempts from long-range, though only ranks Thirteenth in the league in Three-Pointers attempted (18.0). Where this team really gets to work is inside the arc, where they’ve pummeled the opposition, ranking First in the conference in Two-Point Field Goals Made (24.2) and Attempted (41.7), and in Percentage (58.0%), and their latest outing was no different. Barnes’ charges shot 25-of-49 from inside the arc (51.0%) in comparison to a dismal 12-of-40 for the visitors (30.0%), with five different players scoring in double-figures, led by Schofield (21 PTS, 10 REB, 1 AST), along with Bowden (16 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL), and Kyle Alexander (8.5 PTS, 64.3% FG, 6.9 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.9 BLK, 20.1 PER), Lamonte Turner (11.7 PTS, 46.8% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.0 PER), and the aforementioned Bone, who each scored Ten Points.
Meanwhile, the Vols aren’t the only team in the SEC that finds themselves in the midst of a crucial stretch, for Kentucky (20-4, 9-2 in SEC) now enters the Second Leg of the toughest week of their schedule. We can’t stress enough just how important tonight’s game is for the Wildcats, who if they have any hopes of securing not simply a Conference Championship, but a potential No. One Seed in the NCAA Tournament as well, must find a way to avoid dropping back-to-back games at Rupp Arena for the first time since John Calipari arrived in Lexington back in 2009. When last we saw them, Kentucky was victimized by an improbable tip-in at the buzzer in a 71-73 loss to LSU, marking the first time that the Tigers managed to best them in their own house since the 2009-2010 campaign. While the tip-in was certainly controversial (and as a result, reviewed at length), the hosts can only blame themselves for how the affair transpired, blowing an Eight-Point lead at Intermission against a team that has thrived on rallying back from larger deficits; before Wednesday’s contest, Louisiana State had won four out of five games, and in each of them trailed by double-digits at some point. Fast-forwarding to crunch time, Keldon Johnson (16 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL) calmly sank a pair of Free-Throws to tie the game at 71-71 with just six seconds left on the clock, before Skyler Mays (11 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL) dribbled franticly down the length of the court, only to see his attempt fall short off the rim, with his teammate Kavell Bigby-Williams (5 PTS, 5 REB, 2 BLK), who only scored Five Points, there to tip the ball through the net as the buzzer sounded. Was it goal-tending? Was it indeed legitimate? After a lengthy conference, the Officials judged it fair and before the buzzer, in the end marking just the sixth time that LSU had ever beaten Kentucky in Lexington. And just like that, folks, a 10-game winning streak, a 13-game home winning streak (actually seventeen dating back to the previous season), and surely some clipboards in the Kentucky Lockerroom were snapped.
Heading into tonight’s meeting, apart from the fact that the Wildcats are no doubt PISSED that they let one get away from them, they can at least take solace in the fact that they can more than make up for it in these two matchups with the Volunteers in as many weeks, which as we touched upon earlier, figure to be absolutely seismic in regards to deciding the Southeastern Conference. Of course, these teams met on three occasions last season, and as they so often say, familiarity oftentimes breeds contempt. Calipari’s charges fell short in each of the first two meetings, 65-76 in Knoxville and 59-61 a month later in Lexington, before finally getting one back in the SEC Tournament Final (77-72). The third time was indeed the charm for Kentucky, who this time on a neutral court, suffocated Tennessee on the defensive end, relegating the Regular season Champions to a dismal 37.1% shooting from the field, including a miserable 13-of-35 from inside the arc (37.1%), and in turn beating them at their own game, shooting 18-of-34 in terms of Two-Point Field Goals (52.9%), and outscoring them 36-26. Granted, as is usually the case with the ‘Cats, many of those who participated in those three previous meetings have gone on to greener pastures, but while many of the faces have changed, the one thing that hasn’t is the way that this team plays. Kentucky remains the staunchest defensive team in the SEC, ranking first in the league in a slew of categories including Points Allowed (61.5), Opponent’s Field Goal Percentage (39.3%) and Assists (9.7), while also ranking first in Rebounding Margin (Plus-7) and Offensive Rebounding Margin (2.5), which should contrast very nicely in comparison to Tennessee’s offensive efficiency. There is still plenty of size, length, and athleticism to be found in this rotation, led by Sophomore Forward P.J. Washington (14.4 PTS, 51.5% FG, 8.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.1 BLK, 26.2 PER), who stands as Williams’ stiffest competition to another SEC Player of the Year Award. Washington struggled in the previous three meetings with the Vols, but has really grown into a star role a year later, scoring at least Twenty Points in six of the last seven games, including Twenty on 7-of-13 shooting from the field (53.8%) in the loss against LSU.