On Tap, It’s the Vols and Cats Long-awaited Scrap

Please excuse my Dr. Seuss headline, it’s just that I, along with the rest of Vol and Big Blue Nation, are excited to see two of college basketball’s best teams finally square off. On Saturday night, the Tennessee Volunteers, owners of the country’s number one ranking and riding a school record 19-game winning streak, travel into the Cats’ den of Lexington to face off against a talented Kentucky squad. Both teams meet up with rankings inside the top 5 for the first time in the two programs’ storied history.

Don’t let the Wildcats loss to LSU at the start of this week fool you. This is the game that just about every fan and media member of college hoops has had circled for months. Arguably the two top teams in the SEC (throw LSU in there as well) take center stage in college hoops. With College Gameday on hand (live from UK’s former home, Memorial Coliseum) and a Saturday night time slot in one of CBB’s most historic venues, the hype game for Tennessee-Kentucky Pt. 1 is strong. REAL STRONG. Let’s dive right in and preview the 226th matchup between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Kentucky Wildcats.

Rivals on the Court, Respected Adversaries Off

Arguably no team has played Kentucky tougher than Tennessee the last three seasons. Since the 2016 season, Tennessee holds a slight 4-3 edge in head-to-head matchups , a record that includes last season’s first regular season sweep of the Cats since 1998-99. The Cats made good on exacting revenge in last season’s championship game of the SEC tournament. Here’s a trivia question for you: Since John Calipari’s return to college hoops in 2000-01, which team owns the most wins over his teams? If you answered Tennessee with 8, Grant Williams owes you a game of Catan.

Meanwhile, Rick Barnes has fared just about equally as well against his good friend, John Calipari. He boasts a one-game advantage in record when their two teams square off, 6-5. On the court, Barnes and Calipari are fiercely competitive when their two teams meet. You just wouldn’t necessarily know it by how much they praise each other when there is no ball in play. It may not be the narrative that fans of either school want to hear, but it’s true.

I’ve known John for a long time,” Barnes said. “He’s a true friend, he really is. He’s somebody, if I needed something and called and tried to explain it to him, he would say, ‘Just stop, what do you need?’ That’s the kind of friend he is. -Rick Barnes on John Calipari

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And I’m telling you, he’s one of the best in our business. One of the best. – Calipari speaking about Barnes

A Trip Inside the Hornets Nest

This Tennessee team knows that Saturday night’s road affair inside Rupp Arena represents their toughest test of the season thus far. As senior Admiral Schofield said it best when asked about the challenge Kentucky and its fanbase would present, “It’s going to be hostile. It’s going to be a fight, but at the same time it’s not like we are going to back down.” Rick Barnes seemed equally as confident in Tennessee’s ability to handle the big stage. “I like to think that if everything goes in and we play the way we are capable of, we should be able to handle a lot.”

This is an experienced Tennessee team that gets major contributions from upperclassmen. Tennessee starts two seniors (Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield), two juniors (Jordan Bone and Grant Williams), and a fourth year junior (Lamonte Turner). On the other end of the court, the youth and relative inexperience of this Kentucky team is about what one would expect from John Calipari-led teams. The Cats’ backcourt features three freshmen (Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, and Tyler Herro) to go with a frontline of one sophomore (PJ Washington) and a fifth-year graduate transfer (Reid Travis). The arrival of Travis was a real boon for Calipari, as he injected some much-needed age and experience into Kentucky’s youthful squad.

One of the key storylines of the game will be highly-touted versus under the radar. While Calipari seemingly reloads after annual NBA defections, Rick Barnes’ team is full of guys who were not in high demand by any of college basketball’s best teams. It’s all but guaranteed that Big Blue Nation — with the help of some Kentucky Bourbon — will be lathered up and ready to go. Yet taking the crowd out of the equation, the question remains: Will youth or experience prevail?

The Matchup to Watch

Point guard Jordan Bone is the straw that stirs the Vols drink. Bones boasts an impressive assist to turnover ratio of 3.28 to 1 — good for 14th best in the country. However, his value doesn’t stop there. The junior averages 6.6 assists per game (10th best) while scoring at a 13 points per contest clip. He plays over 30 minutes a night and is tasked with running an offense that is at it’s best when the ball goes inside-out.

Bone’s got his work cut out for him against Kentucky. Only 24 games into his collegiate career, Freshman Cats’ player Ashton Hagans has already proven himself as one of the nation’s best defenders.

While Hagans may not score much, the speedster swipes 2.2 steals per game. He knows his role on the team — a pesky defender who loves to pick up opposing point guards full court whenever he’s in the game. How much he disrupts Bone’s ability to get Tennessee into its offense sets should go a long way towards deciding which team wins.

Matchup to Watch Pt. 2

Come on, now. A game between two top 5 teams calls for more than just one “Matchup to Watch.” Reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams looks to further his case to repeat with a dominating performance against a formidable Wildcats frontline. Williams will likely draw Reid Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford. Travis is 6’8 and grown-man strong, so Williams should expect a full-fledged fight on the low block.

Although Reid likely guards Williams on the defensive end, I would expect Barnes to give Grant the assignment of guarding Kentucky’s best player, PJ Washington. The sophomore power forward was recently named one of the thirty players on the midseason Naismith Trophy watchlist, an award given to the nation’s top player. The other two SEC players that joined him? Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Washington showed up two years ago as a much ballyhooed five star but struggled to find rhythm most of his freshman year. He constantly drew the ire of John Calipari. What a different a year makes. Washington has upped his scoring total by almost five points from 18′-19′, but more importantly has produced at a high level of Kentucky’s last ten games. He’s scored more than twenty points in six of the Wildcats last seven contests, and according to John Calipari is making a case for the “best player in the country.” Washington reflects how basketball has evolved; he’s a 6’7 hybrid wing/big who prefers to step out and knock down threes over pounding in the paint for easy buckets. That’s nothing to take away from his ability to snag boards (8.8/game). The talented forward nearly averages a double-double and his statline from the last seven games looks like this:

 20.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 52.0 percent from the floor and 50.0 from 3-point range. 

Williams ability to slow Washington and vice versa is the biggest key to the game. One note of importance, though. A low point production from Williams hasn’t proven fatal for Tennessee (e.g., his 8 points in Wednesday night’s victory over South Carolina). The same cannot be said for Washington and Kentucky. In the Cats’ 10 game win streak before the LSU loss, he only scored in single digits two times.

The Prediction

Tennessee comes in riding high having not lost a game since Thanksgiving. EVen more impressive is the fact that the Vols have beaten their last six opponents by double digits. Meanwhile, Kentucky has played really good basketball over the last month of the season. In what will be the first of two matchups between the teams, the winner is on the inside track to obtaining a coveted number one seed from the Selection Committee. A defeat, on the other hand, while not not fatal to either team does leave the loser on the outside looking in for the SEC regular season crown.

Kentucky may be the more athletic team, but I think the Vols senior leadership and experience wins out. A one-possession affair in the final minute, Admiral Schofield makes another big shot to add to his already impressive highlight reel.

Vols 74, Cats’ 70. 

Like Tennessee basketball? Check back all season for previews, recaps, and other hot takes under our College Hoops tab.

And don’t forget to follow me (@farmerbarn) and fellow Vols hoops writer @barnburnerziggy.

Banner Image courtesy of Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

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