Another major SEC clash sees Tennessee heading to Kentucky; can the Volunteers get back on track with a major win or will the Wildcats hold serve and defend their home court?
TV schedule: Saturday, February 3, 8:30 pm ET. ESPN
Arena: Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky
All things considered, Tennessee (15-5) is putting together another fantastic season and could be in even better shape than seasons past. The Volunteers struggled against elite teams early in the season, but have performed well in recent months. Big wins over Wisconsin, Illinois, and Alabama added ammo to their resume, though the Volunteers are coming off a stunning home upset against South Carolina.
Tennessee picked up a major weapon in the offseason in Dalton Knecht (20.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg), the Northern Colorado transfer who has become the face of the Volunteers’ offense. Point guard Zakai Zeigler (9.8 ppg, 5.0 apg) is healthy and continues to be a key contributor. There’s no shortage of contributions from junior forward Jonas Aidoo (11.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), though we’d be remised if we didn’t mention Santiago Vescovi (7.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg), even if his stats don’t jump off the page.
The Volunteers entered this week at #5 in the AP Top 25, though that was before their loss to the Gamecocks. They still stand at 6th in KenPom, with the 2nd ranked defense in the nation according to the efficiency ratings. Stale offense doomed the Volunteers in years past and was part of their downfall in both SEC losses this season, with them looking to improve on a 5-2 mark in conference play.
Also needing a nice bounce back effort, Kentucky (15-5) enters play with a respectable 5-3 mark in the SEC. The Wildcats have assembled impressive young talent yet again, but John Calipari’s squad has had their share of ups and downs this season, now losers of three of their last six games, including a Wednesday night overtime loss to Florida at home.
Former Illinois State star Antonio Reeves (19.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg) continues to play a major role at Kentucky. Freshman guard Reed Sheppard (12.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.2 apg) is really coming into his own and just had 24 points in their loss against the Gators this week. Another sharp freshman to watch is Rob Dillingham (14.2 ppg, 3.8 apg), an elite weapon in the backcourt. In addition to even more young talent, the Wildcats are getting great effort from senior center Tre Mitchell (13.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg), who’s played at several schools and now solidifies the back end in Lexington.
Kentucky currently stands #10 in the AP Top 25 but is down to 23rd in KenPom. The Wildcats’ offense still hovers around Top 10 in the efficiency ratings, though they haven’t been on full display in recent weeks. While Kentucky cleared 100 against Georgia two weeks ago and have had great moments, they’ve barely eclipsed 60 in their last two non-overtime contests and face a stiffer challenge on Saturday.
Tennessee’s elite defense against Kentucky’s strong offense creates quite the matchup. Neither team is exactly in a position for desperation, but they’re both trailing Alabama in the SEC standings and each want a bounce back performance. Like we’ve mentioned, the Wildcats haven’t exactly been thriving on offense the last two weeks while Tennessee is coming off their own stale performance.
If we forget recent trends and look at the bigger picture, Tennessee should be the better team though Kentucky might have better talent. What we get is a pair of stars that transferred from the mid-major level who are really playing astonishing basketball for these SEC squads. This decision won’t boil down to Knecht against Reeves, but how effective Kentucky can be against the Volunteers’ strong defense.
Prediction: Tennessee 73, Kentucky 71