The No. 1 ranked team in college basketball can prove they deserve to be considered a national championship contender as Tennessee begins a stretch of three games against ranked teams over the next three weeks, including Saturday’s matchup at No. 5 Kentucky in SEC play.
Tennessee Volunteers vs. Kentucky Wildcats
Tennessee: 23-1, 11-0 in the Southeastern Conference
Kentucky: 20-4, 9-2 SEC
Tennessee has won 19 straight games, a school record. Their only loss of the season came on Nov. 23 against Kansas in New York. Kentucky had won 10 straight before a 73-71 home loss to LSU, a game that ended on a controversial no-call on what appeared to be offensive goaltending against LSU. The game would have gone into overtime had the correct call been made. However, Kentucky still didn’t play up to the level expected of a top five team playing at home.
This is the first of two scheduled regular-season meetings between Kentucky and Tennessee. The Volunteers swept the regular season series last season, but the Wildcats gained revenge with a victory in the SEC tournament championship game last March.
Kentucky is led by a young core of players. Sophomore P.J. Washington leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding at 14.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Of the top 10 players on Kentucky’s roster, senior Reid Travis is the only upperclassman. The rest are freshmen and sophomores. As with most young teams, the Wildcats have been an up-and-down squad. They debuted as the No. 2 team in the country, but lost their opener to then-4th ranked Duke. In December, they fell to 19th in the polls, but since entering SEC play, they have steadily risen in the rankings to their current spot of No. 5. During the 10 game winning streak, Kentucky beat three ranked teams, Auburn (then ranked 14th), Mississippi State (22nd) and a depleted Kansas team (9th). This game is the first challenge for the young Wildcats to show how resilient they are. Following the Duke loss in the opener, Kentucky reeled off seven straight wins, but none were against top competition.
It is also worth noting that Tuesday’s loss to LSU was Kentucky’s first at Rupp Arena this season.
Tennessee has been paced by Grant Williams. The junior forward is averaging 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season. Williams is one of five Volunteers averaging double digits in scoring. Senior guard Admiral Schofield adds 16.7 points, 64 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for the Vols.
The Volunteers have remained in the top 10 all season, falling as low as seventh before beating then-number 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 9, the last time Tennessee faced a ranked team. Aside from an overtime win at Vanderbilt on Jan. 23, the Vols haven’t been challenged often during the winning streak. Expect that to change Saturday in Lexington.
Tennessee Volunteers vs. Kentucky Wildcats Prediction
Kentucky’s loss to LSU might be the worst thing to happen to Tennessee. Wildcats’ head coach John Calipari will have his young squad motivate and focused for the matchup with the No. 1 ranked team in the country, and the Rupp Arena crowd will make a major difference in the game.
Kentucky 81 Tennessee 73