The oldest rivalry in the SEC adds another chapter on Saturday afternoon, as the 25th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats come calling on the Tennessee Volunteers.
As the defending national champions, Kentucky came into the 2012-13 season with extremely high expectations, even though it was breaking in a slew of new players. The Wildcats beat up on the teams they were supposed to early on, but a loss to Duke in game two, followed by setbacks against Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville showed the young team coach John Calipari had assembled, while brimming with talent, was having trouble coming together against the better teams on the schedule. Spending the better part of the last couple of months on the outside of the national rankings, UK has managed to log an 8-3 record in SEC action (17-7 overall), earning it a tie with Alabama for second place, two games off the pace set by league-leading Florida.
As it happens, the 'Cats paid a visit to the Gators earlier this week, and they had their five-game win streak both in the series and overall this season come to end with a 69-52 loss.
Tennessee comes into this fray three games over .500 overall (13-10), but the team has performed below that in conference action (5-6). Wins in five of their last eight bouts however, have the Vols feeling better about themselves as they stare down the final month of the regular season. UT won a pair of road games in the last week, taking down South Carolina (66-61) on Sunday, and Vanderbilt (58-46) on Wednesday.
The Volunteers have won four straight home games against the defending national champs (UConn twice, Florida twice), and seven of their last 10 such matchups overall. Additionally, they have more victories over the Wildcats than any other team in the country.
Still, UK leads the all-time series by a substantial 149-66 margin, and the 'Cats have won the last six meetings, including a 75-65 decision in Lexington back on Jan. 15.
Kentucky appeared overmatched from the outset in its recent clash with Florida, trailing by 13 points at the break on the way to a 17-point setback. The Wildcats lost more than the game and some confidence, as the nation's top shot blocker, rookie phenom Nerlens Noel (10.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 106 blocks) suffered a season-ending knee injury. With regard to UK's top performers in the loss to the Gators, only one starter reached double digits in the scoring column, as Julius Mays nailed a pair of 3-pointers to wind up with 10 points, and Willie Cauley-Stein came off the bench to tally 10 points as well. Cauley- Stein will assume Noel's starting spot, at last for the time being, and the team as a whole is going to need to step it up big time if it has any shot at challenging for the SEC crown. Archie Goodwin (13.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.1 apg), Alex Poythress (12.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Kyle Wiltjer (11.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) are the likely candidates to do so, but both Ryan Harrow (9.9 ppg, 3.2 apg) and Mays (9.3 ppg, 3.0 apg) are going to be asked to assume bigger roles as well. Kentucky is still a dangerous team, as it shoots an impressive 48.6 percent from the field, which includes a 36.1 percent showing from beyond the arc, in netting 75.0 ppg, while at the other end yielding just 62.8 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of .382 overall and .310 from downtown. The loss of Noel could mean the club's +5.4 rebounding edge could take a hit.
Despite having talent on the roster, Tennessee is far from an offensive juggernaut, the team averaging 63.7 ppg on the strength of its .429 field goal percentage. The Vols really struggled from long range, connecting on a dismal 28.6 percent of their 3-point tries, but they are one of the league's better rebounding teams (+5.0). Defensively, they rank last in the SEC in steals (3.9 per game), 13th in turnover margin (-2.67) and 10th in field goal percentage defense (.414). Jordan McRae (13.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) continues to pace the club in scoring, ranking 13th in the conference, and he is coming off his first career double-double after scoring 14 points and career-best 11 rebounds in UT's recent win over Vanderbilt. Jarnell Stokes (12.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Trae Golden (10.4 ppg, 3.8 apg) round out the team's double-digit scorers, and both were productive once again versus the Commodores, netting 17 and 12 points, respectively. Stokes came up with 10 rebounds, helping the Vols claim a 38-28 edge on the glass. Tennessee shot 42.9 percent from the field, while Vandy turned the trick at just 37.7 percent. Both teams had difficulty from beyond the arc, combining to go a mere 7-of-28 on 3-pointers.