This series is as good as it gets for our basketball team. Newer Tennessee fans may have gravitated to Florida during their championship runs or Memphis the last two seasons as the Vols' greatest rival...but in reality, it's always been Kentucky. And then John Calipari - first by merely his presence, but now by his accomplishments this season as well - found a way to increase the intensity of emotion Vol Basketball fans feel towards the Cats.
Bruce Pearl did his part on the other side of that equation for four years, keeping Tennessee ahead of Kentucky in the standings and drawing the ire of many Big Blue fans along the way. But now, the story appears to be that Kentucky is in fact back - at 27-1, there's no denying it - and they're taking down everyone in their path without prejudice.
Which is why it's important that the Vols get in their way on Saturday.
We've seen before, and often, that SEC Basketball is Kentucky first, and everyone else playing for second. Under Pearl, the Vols have taken advantage of Kentucky being relatively down the last four years, winning three Eastern Division titles and one outright SEC Championship in that span. The Vols have been the most consistently successful team in the conference over the last five years. But now the old Kentucky appears to be back with a new and sinister leader, and they're a clear threat to the niche Pearl and the Vols have carved out for themselves in the SEC.
In the famous last words of Buzz Peterson...it's only a rivalry if you beat them.
Kentucky is going to win the SEC this year. They've going to get a much higher seed than the Vols in the NCAA Tournament, they clearly have more talent than everyone else in the conference, and therefore they have a much better chance at advancing in March.
And granted, some percentage of this Kentucky team will almost certainly head for the NBA after this season. Kentucky won't always be 27-1.
Tennessee isn't better than Kentucky right now. And there will be other years when that's true. And Tennessee will never overtake the Cats in terms of being a traditional basketball power.
But right now, what the Vols can do is stay on the lead lap.
If Kentucky wins, Tennessee is just like everyone else in this conference. That hasn't been the case in the last four years. And it doesn't need to become the theme of the Calipari Era in Lexington.
A win for Tennessee on Saturday won't even really hurt Kentucky - they will still win the conference, and they will still earn a #1 seed barring a total collapse. But what it would do is send a shot across the bow, letting the Cats know that the Vols are still here. And hopefully, Bruce Pearl and the Vols will continue to remind Kentucky that the Vols are still here for the duration of his tenure.
He did with Calipari at Memphis: the two split the series over four years. Pearl is now 3-6 against Kentucky in Knoxville - and again with Kentucky, history suggests you're probably not going to get the advantage head-to-head in the long run.
But if the measuring stick is once again UK in this conference, the Vols can prove to everyone - the Cats, themselves, and the NCAA selection committee - that they're also still a factor with a win tomorrow. If this rivalry is to become all that we want it to be, at some point Tennessee has to beat this Kentucky, Calipari's Kentucky. And there's no better time than the present:
Kentucky has been vulnerable on the road
If we take out a trip to Baton Rouge against the LSU team that everyone
in the SEC but Arkansas has beaten all season, Kentucky's recent road trips have been bumpy rides. The Cats took their lone loss in Columbia on January 26, were all but dead in Starkville before rallying in an overtime victory on February 16, and dodged another bullet on February 20 in Nashville. The Cats have been more good than lucky, but there are still red flags: Kentucky has been ice cold from beyond the arc (25 of 106 for 24.2% in their last six games), DeMarcus Cousins was in foul trouble in both Starkville and Nashville, and the young Cats continue to be turnover prone.
At halftime of Thursday's win over South Carolina, Jimmy Dykes pointed out that it's especially troublesome (or at least as troublesome as an issue can be to a 27-1 team) that their three point percentage is so low, because the looks they get are so open thanks to John Wall's penetration and the play of Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins inside.
So it goes without saying that the Vols need to frustrate Cousins and get him in foul trouble, take advantage of turnovers without returning the favor (UK had 15 in Rupp Arena, but the Vols had 17), and hope that Kentucky's cold shooting from beyond the arc continues. Will Pearl dial up more zone defense to invite the Cats to try their luck from three? We'll see.
The quick turnaround
It should first be noted that UK's Thursday-Saturday slate isn't worse than the Vols playing the Thursday night game in Baton Rouge and then the Saturday afternoon game against South Carolina earlier this year...and Tennessee played their best game of the season in the second contest of that turnaround.
Kentucky beat South Carolina 82-61 in Rupp Arena on Thursday, in what's currently the only revenge game on the schedule. My hope is that the Cats - who've played really four straight high-emotion games between the ESPN GameDay affair with the Vols, the road trips to Starkville/Nashville, and Thursday's revenge game - are more than just physically tired.
They're a young team that's repeatedly stared adversity in the face and survived. But when I watch this team, I can't shake the feeling that they're going to lose again before the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the young egos are too high, maybe it's the three point shooting and the turnovers, maybe it's just inevitable...but if they're going to have a letdown, let's hope it's Saturday.
Unless we meet in Nashville, this is Chism's last shot against the Vols' biggest rival. His importance to the team has never been more clear than in his injury and foul troubled absence against the Gators on Tuesday: without him in the lineup, teams can sit back in a zone and dare the equally cold Vols to shoot threes, because there's no one else in the paint that scares them. Brian Williams can be a complementary player, and maybe Kenny Hall will be more than that later in his career, but right now that's what we've got.
Chism isn't 100%. And he'll be banging against Cousins and Patterson. He and Cousins were inverted the first time around: 12 points and 5 boards for Wayne, 5 points and 12 boards for DeMarcus. Chism took fifteen shots against the Cats in Rupp, but eight of them were three pointers. We'll need the fifteen shots again...but we need more of them in the paint. And he has to play every minute he can. He must help force Cousins into foul trouble while avoiding it himself.
Wayne Chism is our best player. We need his very best game on Saturday to free up our entire offense.
Rise to the moment
I truly believe the cards are on the table for an ambush on Saturday. But much like Rupp, it will take 40 minutes to get it done. If Kentucky plays less than its A game on the road again, and the Cats are cold from three and eager to turn it over, Tennessee will still need its A game to take advantage. We need Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins to play over their heads again on both ends of the floor. We need Cameron Tatum to be a factor. We need J.P. Prince to fill up the stat sheet in every column except turnovers. We need something special from at least one bench player - McBee? Swipa? Hall? Someone must step up.
We need Scotty Hopson to man up, now. I'll buy that off-the-bench Florida performance when I see what I really want from him: consistency. No more talking, no more trying to figure it out: play up to the level this rivalry demands.
We need the crowd, on every possession. If you're going to be there, you're going to be loud.
And we need Chism to lead the way. His Tennessee career has one final opportunity for glory against Kentucky...now is the time.
I want this rivalry to matter. But as we all know, the only way Tennessee is going to get respect from John Calipari is to take it from him. I believe the opportunity is there...will we be good enough to take advantage?