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Tennessee at Kentucky: Opportunish

The Vols have won at Rupp just four times in 40 years. A fifth would make a huge impact on Tennessee’s resume.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

When last we met on January 25, Kentucky was ranked fourth and had won seven in a row. Tennessee’s 82-80 victory was the first signature on a long resume, so long in fact that when the Vols followed it up with a win over Kansas State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge they found themselves firmly on the bubble. Despite a pair of frustrating losses to Mississippi State and Georgia, Tennessee has done enough to stay there: the Vols were the second team out in last night’s Bracket Matrix update.

Meanwhile Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee turned into three-of-four, dropping games to Kansas in Rupp and getting blown out in Gainesville. In the middle it took overtime to beat Georgia in Lexington, then the Cats were uninspiring in a 92-85 home win over LSU. They did take care of business at Alabama on Saturday to right the ship a bit. For a full look at where the SEC stands with three weeks to go, check out my colleague’s excellent post from earlier today.

A Sea of Blue ran a good story today on how Kentucky’s success is tied into De’Aaron Fox. Against the Vols, Kentucky’s best basketball was indisputably through Bam Adebayo: he averages 13 and 7, but against the Vols had 21 on 7-of-8 from the floor and the line. There are many things Tennessee does well in spite of its size limitations. I’m not sure being able to guard Adebayo is one of them, and though his performance in Knoxville hasn’t led to a significant change in Kentucky’s philosophy, I’d imagine Coach Cal might have more plans for the 6’10” freshman tonight.

One of those good things Tennessee does well in spite of size, especially against Kentucky, is use players like Admiral Schofield to take advantage via quickness. Last year Armani Moore was a force against Kentucky with 39 points and 24 rebounds in two games. Schofield had 15 and 7 against the Cats the first time, and he and Grant Williams remain Tennessee’s most efficient players in league play. Robert Hubbs was really good with his mid-range game the first time, but it’s been the play of Schofield and Williams that has kept Tennessee alive when Hubbs isn’t on fire.

I’m not sure how much flame we’ll need tonight, but in Rupp Arena the answer is usually, “more than that.” Tennessee has won in Rupp in 1977, 1979, 1999, and 2006. Four wins in 40 years means when we say beating Kentucky in Lexington is a once-per-decade event, you can take it literally.

There will be plenty of must-win or bubble-bursting talk on ESPN tonight, but the math suggests this is just a different kind of opportunity. I still think going to the SEC Tournament Tennessee needs 18 wins to be in the conversation and 19 wins to feel good about itself. Beating Kentucky would change the conversation in terms of quality wins and RPI, and would allow for some grace in the five games after this one (so long as we don’t need it against Missouri in Knoxville). On the other hand, if the Vols lose tonight the only way they’re getting to 19 wins by Nashville is to win the rest of their games. I don’t know if it’s more likely for the Vols to win at Rupp or go 5-0 after Rupp (Missouri, Vanderbilt, at South Carolina, at LSU, Alabama). I do know both are tough asks.

We’ll keep an eye on the bubble regardless of what happens tonight, and the Vols should still feel like they control their own at-large destiny regardless of what happens tonight. This is still an opportunity game first and foremost; it’s not a must-win, it just may make all the others that way if we don’t.

As usual, you’ll need all 40 minutes to win in this place. 7:00 PM ET, ESPN.