Tennessee vs Kentucky Preview

USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky plays its first game without Nerlens Noel against a Tennessee team looking to get even in conference play.

To a degree we have to throw the stats and graphs out with this one, because none of us are exactly sure what a Kentucky team without Nerlens Noel will look like in its first appearance. A Sea of Blue gives us their best guess by examining UK's production when their star freshman hasn't been on the floor this season. The good news for Kentucky is, as usual, he wasn't their only star freshman.

That's doubly good news in this matchup, because the first time around Kyle Wiltjer was lights out with 17 points off the bench. Tennessee played 35 minutes of really good basketball, but that happens to us all the time in Rupp, and Kentucky wrote their usual ending in what turned into a ten point win. Wiltjer hasn't been as hot this month, but after last time and his 26 point outburst at Ole Miss, no one should sleep on him. If John Calipari decides to extend his rotation, watch out for Jon Hood off the bench.

This will also be a different Tennessee team than the one Kentucky last saw as long as Jarnell Stokes doesn't pickup two fouls in the first three minutes again. Stokes is playing the role of Ron Slay ten years later: an SEC Player of the Year type-season, an award Slay won on a 17-10 bubble team that burst in the SEC Tournament. Six straight double doubles is an incredible feat in conference play. The big fella averages 14 points per game in league play, and leads the SEC with 9.8 rebounds per game in league play. I don't know if Stokes will be in the player of the year conversation when all is said and done, but right now he deserves to be.

It's not quite the same test without Noel, but it's still Kentucky, and that still makes it our favorite test of the year. While most of us outside the bluegrass always assume UK will dance on name recognition alone unless their distance from the bubble is painfully obvious, Kentucky has enough losses already at 17-7 to need some of these wins down the stretch. If the Cats collapse without Noel, they could find themselves on the outside looking in.

Tennessee, on the other hand, did a good job this week getting away from the bottom tier of the SEC. The new 14-team conference tournament will feature an extra day of play on Wednesday for its four worst teams, a group the Vols flirted with before taking down two of them this week. Now with Tennessee at 5-6 there are two games separating us from that group of Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Auburn, and Mississippi State.

Tennessee should avoid Wednesday, but that's the smallest of our goals. Florida is going to win the league, but if the Vols beat Kentucky they will add to the gridlock in the middle, where right now the nine teams that aren't Florida or the bottom four are all between 8-3 and 5-6. If Tennessee finds a way to win tomorrow, sneaking into that fourth seed and a bye til Friday comes on the table.

That's one of many conversations we know we'd like to have, but Kentucky is in the way. Make no mistake: getting back on the NCAA bubble would require a whole lot more than beating Kentucky. Right now I think most of us would settle for firming up an NIT bid and moving up the conference ladder. But if you want to keep having those conversations, you have to win a game like this, especially when your last marquee win came in December.

Kentucky won't be as good, but I expect them to play very well; teams in their first game without their star player tend to reach down for that something extra, and while they can't replace Noel's presence, they are still plenty good enough to beat us without him. The Vols will need to play great defense on Archie Goodwin, will need to account for Wiltjer this time around, and must help themselves by not turning the ball over so much, something we were much better at against Vanderbilt this week.

It's a huge game for Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. Playing great basketball against South Carolina and Vanderbilt is one thing. This is a beast of a different breed. If Tennessee wants to move this thing forward, it needs Golden. And if Stokes wants to be considered among the SEC's best of the best, he has to play well against the league's best teams. This is that opportunity, for him and for us.

They'll come with their blue and sit in our seats, which always makes this one a lively affair. You come with your orange and show up for a fight, because I think that's what we're going to get. The narrative of both teams is up in the air right now. Who's going forward tomorrow?

1:00 PM - CBS. Make a statement.

Go Vols.

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