LEXINGTON, Ky. — At 8 p.m. ET Saturday one of the biggest tilts ever in Vols-Cats series will tip in Rupp Arena. It'll be game that goes a good way toward deciding what team wins the SEC regular-season title and which has the sharper angle on landing a No. 1 seed next month.
Something that might surprise you: Tennessee's won four of the past seven meetings between these two. We rarely see a scenario in which the Volunteers head into Lexington with not only a realistic shot at winning, but at winning big.
But Tennessee's spent most of the season throttling opponents. The Vols rank fourth nationally in scoring margin (18.1) and have averaged 85.5 points in league play.
What result from this game would truly surprise you? Clearly a close UT win or a close UK win (let's define that as six points or fewer) wouldn't apply. A mid-range win (7-12) for either team seems possible. Even a Tennessee blowout victory (15 point or more) is on the table, given recent precedence.
So, really, a lopsided win in favor of Kentucky seems the most unlikely outcome. Hopefully we get a tight one; it's a great thing for college basketball when February can provided top-five matchups with both teams vying for the top seed line. We got that last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we'll have it again here.
Viewing information for No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky
TV: ESPN | Live stream: WatchESPN
Tennessee's biggest storyline is the 1-2 tandem of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, who have a strong claim as the best duo in the sport. Williams is a top-three candidate for National Player of the Year at this point as far as I'm concerned. Schofield would land plenty of votes for Second Team All-America if a tally came in this weekend.
How those two match up vs. Kentucky's steady starting frontcourt of PJ Washington and Reid Travis should be the determining factor in the game.
Beyond this game, though, an arc for UT that's built up is how 2018-19 has become the best start in school history. The Vols are 23-1 and are the only team this season not to lose a game in regulation. (Kansas beat them in overtime in November.) UT's stay atop the AP Top 25 in recent weeks has legitimized Rick Barnes' team as a national title co-favorites alongside, most prominently, Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga. A win at Kentucky would be a true boost, however, since Tennessee hasn't defeated a ranked team since its neutral-court win against Gonzaga in December.
There's almost always myriad storylines at play with Kentucky at any given point in the season. The most immediate one is how the Wildcats respond after losing their first home game, on Tuesday, to LSU due to a blown/missed/non-reviewable call for offensive basket interference. Kentucky taking back-to-back losses would be a big hit to their credentials, even if those losses came to the two of the three best teams in the SEC.
And Calipari almost never loses consecutive games at Rupp.
A big reason for Kentucky's 20-4 record this season has been its ability to rule the offensive boards. Kentucky ranks third in the country in OReb percentage (38.3) and will get to licking its chops because, somewhat unexpectedly, Tennessee isn't a top-250 team in defensive rebounding.
Kentucky's point guard play has evolved this season, but according to data tracked by KenPom.com, over the past five games the most commonly used lineup, by far, is Ashton Hagans at the point 74 percent of the time. Immanuel Quickly is logging the other 26 percent of the minutes. Those two will face Tennessee's Jordan Bone, who is not nearly as heralded as he should be.
Hagans' defense on Bone is a matchup I can't wait to see. Bone is the nucleus of an offense that now averages more assists (19.9) than all others in Division I.
Game prediction, pick
Latest line via SportsLine: Kentucky -4
This game is more rare than you might think. In fact, outside of when these teams meet again this season, it might be years, or decades, before we get a matchup between two top-five teams that are so averse to 3-point shooting. Only 23.4 percent of Tennessee's points come off the 3-pointer. Kentucky's barely better at 24.1. The Vols and Cats rate, by far, the lowest in 3-point distribution among all Final Four contenders this season. Because of that, and because the better team is on the road, I don't expect a blowout. Tennessee has not played a surefire NCAA Tournament team in nine weeks (Gonzaga on Dec. 9). So I'll ride with the Wildcats at home in a close one. Norlander's pick: Kentucky -4
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