Game of the Week: No.1 Tennessee vs No.5 Kentucky
The Tennessee Volunteers will go head-to-head with the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky this Saturday night on ESPN. This is the first meeting of the season between two of the best teams in the SEC, and it’s shaping up to be one of the best college basketball games in 2019.
Tennessee (23-1, 11-0) comes into the matchup on a 19-game winning streak and is 11-0 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time in school history. Their one and only loss came against Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship, all the way back in November. The top-ranked Volunteers defeated South Carolina 85-73 on Wednesday, even though the Gamecocks made a season-high 14 3-point baskets and shot 60.9 percent from behind the arc.
Kentucky (20-4, 9-2) currently sits at third in the SEC, two games behind Tennessee. Since losing by 34 to Duke in the season-opener, the Wildcats have lost just three games by a combined five points. Despite this, Kentucky will have its back against the wall come Saturday after losing to LSU 73-71 on Tuesday. The loss snapped a 10-game winning streak and a 17-game home winning streak for the Wildcats.
Regardless, Kentucky will likely be favored in this matchup. The Wildcats have only lost nine times at Rupp Arena in coach John Calipari’s 10 seasons with the team. Losing consecutive home games would be unheard of.
Saturday’s matchup will be pivotal in determining the SEC regular-season champion as well as seeding for the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Tennessee leads the SEC in scoring at 85.4 points per game, but Kentucky’s defense has been phenomenal lately, holding opponents to a league-best 61.5 points per game. Expect a highly-motivated Kentucky team playing at home to give the Volunteers everything they can handle.
Tennessee is led by one of the nation’s best point guards, junior Jordan Bone, and the reigning SEC Player of the Year, junior forward Grant Williams. Williams has kept his name in the Wooden Award race, averaging almost 20 points and over seven rebounds per game. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, senior guard Admiral Schofield gives the Volunteers a huge advantage on the wing. Although his offensive production has slowed down some, Schofield will be a nightmare matchup for anyone on Kentucky.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are led by freshman point guard Ashton Hagans. Hagans took over the starting role in early December, and Kentucky hasn’t looked back since. Hagans is one of the better defenders in the country, but he will have his hands full as he attempts to disrupt Bone on Saturday night. Forward PJ Washington has also stepped up his game at the right time for the Wildcats. The sophomore is averaging 20.7 points and 8.6 rebounds over his last seven games.
The biggest advantage for Tennessee in this matchup will be their depth and experience at all five spots on the court. Tennessee’s top six players are all juniors or seniors who have played with each other for three or four years now. On the other hand, Kentucky should have a noticeable advantage in the paint. Both teams score the majority of their points inside the arc, but when it comes to rebounding, Kentucky has the upper hand. The Wildcats are the best defensive rebounding team in the SEC and one of the best offensive rebounding teams nationally.
All in all, this should be an incredible game that goes down to the wire. Kentucky will need to be locked in as they go up against a very experienced Tennessee team that might be able to handle the atmosphere of Rupp Arena. Tennessee struggles to protect the defensive glass, and Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. The Wildcats have to take advantage of second-chance points if they are to pull off the upset. If Kentucky can keep up their strong play as of late, a Tennessee team that hasn’t faced a ranked opponent since December could be in trouble when they travel to Lexington.
Prediction: Kentucky 78, Tennessee 75.
Matthew Black is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email MatthewCBlack20@gmail.com.