The Tennessee Volunteers will put their no. 1 ranking on the line Saturday night when they visit the Kentucky Wildcats. Despite Tennessee’s top ranking, the Wildcats are 3-point favorites at home.
Tennessee has retained the top ranking in the polls for nearly a month. They head to Lexington with a record of 23-1, with their only loss coming in overtime against Kansas in late November. Since then, they’ve rattled off 19 wins in a row, including all 11 of their SEC games.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is coming off a disheartening loss to LSU earlier this week that snapped a 10-game winning streak. The Cats were cheated by a missed call by the refs, dropping them to 20-4 overall and 9-2 in conference play. Kentucky’s spot in March is already secure, but the Wildcats are going to need to win this game in order to have any hope of winning the SEC regular season title.
One area where Kentucky has stood out this year is in the frontcourt. Sophomore forward P.J. Washington is the team’s leading scorer at 14 points per game. However, he’s gotten better over the course of the season, scoring at least 20 points in six of his last seven games. He and fellow forward Reid Travis are both excellent rebounders as well. Travis has been a little spotty as a scorer lately, but he and Washington give Kentucky the size and physicality they’ll need to match up against Tennessee.
Of course, the key for the Wildcats could be freshman point guard Ashton Higgins. Kentucky doesn’t necessarily need him to score, but he’s vital to running their half-court offense and helping set up his teammates. Higgins had just one assist in the loss to LSU and has struggled against some of the more modest teams in the SEC. It’s possible that he’ll struggle against an elite team like Tennessee.
As for Tennessee, they are undoubtedly the more experienced team in this game, as well as the more balanced team. The Vols have five players who average at least 11 points per game, which is a luxury few teams have. Junior forward Grant Williams leads the way with over 19 points per game. But Kentucky’s biggest concern could be the tandem of Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield. Bone averages 6.5 assists per game in addition to scoring 13 points, although Schofield is the more dangerous scorer. It’s possible those two savvy guards have their way with Kentucky’s young backcourt.
However, size and rebounding is something the Volunteers will have to watch. While Tennessee has bigger guards who can rebound, most of their size comes from complementary players like Kyle Alexander and John Fulkerson. Those two can play together to help matchup against Washington and Travis, but the Vols would have to do that at the expense of one of their better scorers. In the end, they may have to sacrifice a little offense to keep the Wildcats off the offensive glass.
By the Numbers
It’s hard to buy a 23-1 Tennessee team as underdogs, even on the road. The Vols being an older team will help them survive a difficult road environment. Bet on Tennessee to at least beat the 3-point spread against Kentucky.