By Derek Lusk
Founder, Checkerboard Chatter
Tennessee plays Kentucky on Sunday at high noon in Knoxville. There is always plenty of pride to play for when these two border rivals get together. As you might expect, Kentucky has dominated the series historically. The winningest program in college basketball history claims a 145 and 66 record all-time against the Vols. The rivalry, however, has been much more competitive in Knoxville where the Wildcats only hold a four game advantage over the Volunteers with an all-time record of 51 and 47. The rivalry between John Calipari and Bruce Pearl is almost as heated as the one between the two institutions themselves. Calipari owns a 6 and 4 advantage in his career versus the Volunteers which includes his time at Memphis. Pearl is 4 and 8 in his career against Kentucky.
With the win over South Carolina on Thursday night the matchup against UK takes on a whole new significance. Despite all the Vols have been through and all inconsistencies the fans have witnessed, Tennessee finds itself with an opportunity to clinch a 2-seed for the SEC Tournament and the coveted first round bye. The Vols will need a little help from two of its fiercest rivals in order to achieve that 2-seed. With a UT win, a Georgia loss at Alabama, and a Vanderbilt loss at home against Florida the roller-coaster Volunteers will earn a day of rest when the conference tournament tips off on March 10th in Atlanta. So Vol fans should make two statements I wouldn't expect to ever hear again....Go Bama and Go Gators!
Sunday's game is equally important to Kentucky. The SEC East is a mess with the only certain seeds being Florida at the 1 and South Carolina at the 6. None of the other 4 teams (UK, UT, UGA, and VU) control their own destiny. From Kentucky's standpoint, a 3-way tie for the 2-seed is a bad thing. If they, along with UGA and Vandy, all win over the weekend then Vandy wins the three-way tie-breaker and gets the 2-seed based on the fact that the Dores swept Georgia and Kentucky only split with the Dawgs. If UK and UGA win but Vandy loses then UK takes the tie-breaker based on a better divisional record. If UK and Vandy win and UGA loses then Kentucky would take that tie-breaker as well. Thoroughly confused? Let's sum it up this way: Sunday's game is huge for the Wildcats as well.
Needless to say, the 2-seed in the SEC Tournament is very desirable for both teams. The 2-seed would only have to win three games to claim the SEC crown. Any lower seed would have to win four times in four days.
Tennessee is a lock for the NCAA tournament. But make no mistake, an SEC Tournament Championship could help the Vols seeding tremendously.
In order to beat Kentucky the Vols will need to play far better than they did at Rupp Arena in a loss back on February 8th. The Cats won that contest 73-61 and it wasn't that close. Two of Kentucky's role players had career nights against Tennessee in Lexington. DeAndre Liggins poured in 19 points and Josh Harrellson added 16. The Big Blue pushed around the guys in orange and dominated on the glass where they out-rebounded the Vols 38 to 28. Tennessee also turned the basketball over 14 times in that game and shot a paltry 41 percent from the field.
Kentucky will come into Knoxville after two of their biggest wins of the season. They beat Florida on February 26th and Vanderbilt on March 1st. Of course those wins were both in Rupp where the Cats have been fabulous this year. Kentucky is undefeated at home this season. As good as they have been in Lexington, they have been equally as bad on the road. Calipari's squad is 3 and 7 on the road with one of those wins coming at Portland against the West Coast Conference's 5th place team. UK was 1 and 6 on the road in the SEC.
Kentucky's poor road performances by no means guarantee a home win for the Vols. As Checkerboard Chatter detailed earlier this week, Thompson-Boling hasn't provided much of a home court advantage in this, Pearl's sixth season(http://checkerboardchatter.blogspot.com/2011/02/thompson-boling-arena-home-sweet-home.html). Somebody will have to win (tongue-in-cheek). Can the Cats overcome their road struggles or will Knoxville finally prove to be a safe haven for the embattled Vols?
Brian Williams' status remains unclear at this point. The Vols missed him far more than most anticipated in the win against South Carolina. In the second half the Gamecocks post players, namely Muldrow, kept the game closer than it might have been. Williams presence could be a big factor based on Terrance Jones talent and Josh Harrellson's performace against UT earlier this season.
Another key to the game will be the play of Kentucky native, Scotty Hopson. Scotty has been tremendous of late. In his last six games he has led the team in scoring five times and averaged more than 23 points per game in that span. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Sunday could be Hopson's last game in Thompson-Boling arena. His great play down the stretch this season has made him a viable NBA draft pick. Teams will fall in love with his athleticism in the individual workouts where measureables carry more weight than college performance.
Sunday's game is at Noon EST/11:00 am CST and will be televised on CBS. Every time Tennessee plays Kentucky on the hardwood its an important game. Pride is always on the line. On Sunday in Knoxville it will be for more than just the pride associated with a rivalry game. This time it may go a long way in determining the Vols NCAA tournament seed.
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