2:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Tennessee -2.5, Over/Under: 140.5
For the second time in over two weeks, SEC powerhouses collide, as the Seventh-Ranked Tennessee Volunteers play host to the Fourth-Ranked Kentucky Wildcats in a matchup from Thompson-Boling Arena that will go a long way towards deciding the fate of the league. There is plenty on the line in this one, folks, for Kentucky (24-4, 13-2 in SEC) finds themselves in a three-way tie with Tennessee and LSU heading into tonight’s affair for First Place in the conference. Making this more important, particularly for the Wildcats, is that given their standing in the rankings, securing an SEC Regular Season Title would in all likelihood be enough to earn a No. One Seed in the NCAA Tournament, which as we all know, this program is no stranger to. When these teams met back on February 16th, they were in very different places; Kentucky was still in shock after a controversial late-game collapse at home to LSU, while Tennessee entered Lexington as the reigning top-ranked team in the country, riding high on a 19-game winning streak. With that said, John Calipari’s charges certainly appeared to have put that disappointing decision against the Tigers behind them, for the ensuing 86-69 drubbing of the Vols showed just how good this team could be when playing as one cohesive unit, handing them their first defeat since late November. Leading 37-31 at Halftime, the home side went to work in the Second Half, authoring a 25-7 onslaught that pretty much put the game out of reach. The hosts battered the visiting side in the paint, outscoring them 36-20 in that area of the court, and 17-14 in terms of second-chance points. P.J. Washington (15.0 PTS, 52.8% FG, 44.8% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.1 BLK, 26.7 PER) was a man among boys, with the Sophomore Forward scoring a game-high Twenty-Three Points on an efficient 9-of-12 shooting from the field (75.0%), along with Five Rebounds, an Assist, and a pair of Steals and Blocks apiece, while Keldon Johnson (13.PTS, 47.3% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.0 PER) added another Nineteen Points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%), including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc (50.0%). Tyler Herro (14.2 PTS, 46.5% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 20.2 PER) also played a large role in matters, totaling Fifteen Points and Thirteen Rebounds, as his team outrebounded their opposition in convincing fashion (38-24). However, the most important takeaway from that victory was how the Wildcats finished; mistakes and poor decision-making stained their loss to LSU, but even as the Volunteers cut their enormous deficit in half, Calipari’s troops closed the deal as impressively as one could imagine.
Since that exclamation point of a victory, Kentucky has been on a roll, wining each of their following three contests, most recently a 70-66 victory over Arkansas, in which the hosts were forced to rally back from a 15-point deficit in the Second Half. A trifecta of Three-Pointers courtesy of the sharpshooting Herro sparked a momentum-swinging 18-3 run that got them back in the game, with the Freshman Guard pouring in a career-high Twenty-Nine Points on a white-hot 9-of-10 shooting from the field (90.0%), including 5-of-6 from downtown (83.3%), to accompany Four Rebounds, Three Assists, Two Steals, and a Block. Turnovers were the main culprit for their First Half struggles, with the Wildcats committing a dozen in the first twenty minutes of action, only to clean things up considerably afterwards, coughing up the rock on just three occasions. And when the Razorbacks attempted to close the gap down the stretch, Coach Cal enjoyed the luxury of witnessing his side nail clutch Free-Throw after Free-Throw, which admittedly hasn’t always been their strong suit in years past. In the final twenty-six seconds Washington, Herro, and Ashton Hagans (7.6 PTS, 47.8% FG, 2.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.9 STL, PER) each stepped up at the Charity Stripe to seal the deal. Nick Richards (3.6 PTS, 58.7% FG, 3.4 REB, 0.2 AST, 1.4 BLK, PER) also performed well in place of the injured Reid Travis (11.3 PTS, 51.6% FG, 6.9 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.8 BLK, PER), totaling Fifteen Rebounds and Three Blocks to go with seven Points in twenty-five minutes off the Bench, helping Kentucky establish a commanding 37-24 advantage on the glass. The tune-up for Tennessee marked Kentucky’s seventh consecutive season series sweep of Arkansas, and kept them in the running of earning at least a share of the Southeastern Conference Regular Season Crown.
Meanwhile, now is the time in which Tennessee (25-3, 13-2 in SEC) will reveal who they really are, for since getting absolutely pasted in their previous meeting with Kentucky, this simply hasn’t been the same basketball team. As we detailed earlier, the Wildcats didn’t just snap the Volunteers’ program-record 19-game winning streak, they physically bullied the hell out of Rick Barnes’ charges, who clearly weren’t ready for such an encounter. Take the following into consideration: they were relegated to a season-low Twenty-Four Rebounds, while despite scoring Sixteen Points, Grant Williams (19.1 PTS, 56.8% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 7.6 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.5 BLK, 30.9 PER), the reigning SEC Player of the Year, managed just Four Field Goal Attempts. Furthermore, the Vols rank Tenth (57.2%) and Ninth (43.3%) in the nation in Two-Point Field Goal Percentage and it’s Defense, and were specifically exploited inside the arc. Since that miserable showing, it’s been undeniable that this group, not long ago touted as a potential favorite in the NCAA Tournament, has been in a funk, splitting the following two outings, and very nearly avoiding defeat in their most recent affair, a 73-71 victory over Mississippi. However, before we get to that particular contest, let’s take a moment to cover their 80-82 overtime defeat at LSU last weekend. Despite leading for the bulk of the Second Half, the Tigers would not go away taking a brief lead after knocking down a Three-Pointer inside the final minute of Regulation, before the aforementioned Williams sent the tie to Overtime via a driving layup. From there, the teams traded blows, though the hosts would eventually gain the upper hand, drawing even once more via a put-back off an Offensive Rebound with Six Seconds remaining. From there the visiting side had a shot of winning it, with Lamonte Turner (11.3 PTS, 44.1% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.2 PER) drawing iron on a potentially game-winning Three, allowing Louisiana State to secure the rebound and draw a foul in the process. The home side calmly knocked down the final two Free-Throws earn the victory, and a share of First Place in the conference. The Charity Stripe was a huge factor in this one folks, for Tennessee shot 12-of-16 from the line (75.0%), while their counterparts doubled that output, netting 24-of-31 attempts (77.4%).
Very nearly the same outcome occurred midweek against Ole Miss, though this time, they managed to get a better look at the basket in the clutch. Tennessee trailed 34-39 at Halftime, but authored a 14-0 run early in the Second Half, though the Rebels would eventually fight their way back into the game midway through the final period. Leading 71-70 with just Eighteen Seconds remaining on the clock, the hosts missed the first leg of a One & One, allowing Williams to barrel through lane and net a short jumper to take a 72-71 lead. Mississippi had one final opportunity to retake the advantage, but were called for a crucial charge, with their Coach, Kermit Davis erupting for a Technical Foul that effectively ended the game. Fans were in outrage, throwing anything they could find towards the court, particularly in the direction of the visiting bench. All in all, the Vols put together the bounce-back performance that they needed, shooting 51.8% from the field, including 26-of-43 from within the arc (60.5%), while working hard on the glass (30 Rebounds) and dishing out a healthy Sixteen Assists. Williams, who had been struggling since the first meeting with Kentucky, led the way with Twenty-One Points on 7-of-13 shooting (53.8%), along with Six Rebounds, Four Assists, Three Steals, and a pair of Blocks. Turner chipped in with Seventeen Points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), Four rebounds, Four Assists, and Two Steals, while Admiral Schofield (6.7 PTS, 48.3% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.5 PER) added another Eleven Points on 4-of-7 shooting (57.1%), including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc (66.7%). Defensively, Barnes’ troops did a solid job of slowing the Rebels down, limiting the hosts to 41.4% shooting from the field, including 15-of-35 inside the arc (42.9%). A tough win in a hostile environment is arguably what this team needed before this seismic battle with the Wildcats, for if their first meeting was any indication, the tougher team will prevail.