Game of the Week Preview: Kentucky vs. Tennessee
Since losing on a controversial tip-in at the buzzer against LSU back on Feb. 12 to No. 19 LSU, the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats have won four consecutive games with an average margin of victory of 14 points.
The largest victory during that span was a 17-point shellacking over then top-ranked Tennessee at Rupp Arena. On Saturday, the seventh-ranked Volunteers will get another crack at the Wildcats, this time at home in the Thompson-Boling Arena.
Rick Barnes’ squad has struggled since the first meeting with Kentucky and was a controversial call at the end of its game against Ole Miss from losing three of its last four contests. LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee are all currently tied for first place in the SEC, so the Volunteers cannot afford to take another loss to Kentucky if it hopes to win the SEC regular season title.
If LSU happens to drop another game, the winner of Saturday’s match-up will be in the driver’s seat to clinch the top seed for the SEC Tournament and a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Volunteers have five players averaging double-digit points, led by the duo of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Williams is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and leads the Volunteers with 19.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Schofield also averages 16.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
The key to the Tennessee offense, however, is Jordan Bone, who averages 6.3 assists to just 2.1 turnovers per game, while also averaging 13.1 points per game.
Bone will likely matchup up with Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans. Hagans ran the offense beautifully in the first matchup with seven assists to just one turnover. If Hagans can pressure Bone early and make him uncomfortable then Kentucky will be in much better shape. But if Bone can replicate his 19-point, six-assist performance in the first meeting, Tennessee at home will be tough to beat.
The other key storyline in this game is that Kentucky will likely be without Reid Travis, who has not played since spraining his knee against Missouri on Feb. 19. The Stanford grad transfer is a physical presence down low and was key in keeping Williams off the offensive glass in the first matchup. Without Travis on the road, Kentucky could have its hands full in the rebounding department.
An increased workload from PJ Washington and Nick Richards will be required without Travis. Washington has played at an All-American level in the second half of the season and scored 23 points against Tennessee last time out. Richards played just six minutes in the first matchup against Tennessee because of foul trouble, which cannot happen this time.
Richards is Kentucky’s best rim protector, and he also corralled 15 rebounds in 25 minutes against Arkansas on Tuesday night.
Keldon Johnson has also hauled in 23 rebounds in the last two games, and his presence on the glass will be key on Saturday without Travis. Tyler Herro also made a big contribution on the glass with 13 rebound in the first meeting and scored 15 points, though he shot just 3 of 11 from the field.
Herro led the way for Kentucky’s comeback after being down by as many as 15 to Arkansas on Tuesday with a career-high 29 points.
The other key to the game will be the 3-point line. Tennessee shot only 28 percent from deep in the first game. However, the Volunteers have have made 36 percent of their 3s on the season and have several players that can get hot.
Schofield was only 1 of 6 in the first matchup at Rupp Arena, but he has shot nearly 40 percent for the season. Same goes for Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, who combined to go 0 of 11 from 3-point range against Kentucky.
While the Wildcats were dominant in the first game, it is very unlikely the Volunteers will shoot that poorly again and allow Kentucky to get out in transition as often.
Tennessee is undefeated at home this season and without Travis, Kentucky will have a much more difficult time of keeping the Volunteers’ big off the glass. Expect Tennessee to being it’s a-game this time around and pick up a huge revenge win at home.
Prediction: Tennessee 77, Kentucky 71
Will Desautelle is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.