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No. 15 Kentucky Wildcats vs. Tennessee Volunteers Opponent Preview

Can the Wildcats avoid losing three straight to the Vols?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Kentucky vs Tennessee
Coach Cal is 2-4 in his last six games against the Vols.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers (13-9, 5-4) pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind win in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday night, so naturally their reward is a matchup with the 15th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (17-5, 7-2).

These two teams have played some intense games over the last couple of years, with the most recent being the thrilling showdown SEC Tournament semifinal that saw Tennessee dominate the final few minutes en route to arguably the biggest win of Rick Barnes’ career.

John Calipari has the usual engine that is Kentucky Basketball humming, but the Vols showed some major grit in their win over Alabama. And they host the Wildcats, who have struggled in Knoxville over the years.

Conference Record and Standings

  • Southeastern Conference
  • 17-5, 7-2 (t-2nd)
  • Won last game

Impact Players

F Nick Richards: 14.6 PPG, 66.1 FG%, 74.5 FT%, N/A 3PT%, 8.3 REB, 2.2 BLK, 0.3 AST, 1.5 TO, 29.7 MIN

So. Yea. Nick Richards is going to be an issue for Tennessee.

The 6-foot-10 junior forward is having himself a helluva season for the Cats. He’s tied for the team-lead in points and also leads the team in blocks and rebounds. Those marks also some of the best in the SEC, too. He leads the SEC in field goal percentage and is third in both rebounds and blocks.

As we know, the Vols don’t have much size outside of Uros Plavsic and even he is still figuring things out. Tennessee does have the capability to get physical in the paint with John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, but none of the three aforementioned guys will be able to post up 1-v-1 with Richards for the entire game.

Kentucky’s offense is at its best when it flows through Richards. If the Vols can find a way to slow him down, then things will get really interesting on Saturday.

G Immanuel Quickley 14.6 PPG, 40.2 FG%, 92.5 FT%, 38.5 3PT%, 4.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.5 TO, 0.7 STL, 32.0 MIN

The talented sophomore has “quickly” established himself as one of the best players over the last few weeks.

He’s scored 20+ points in three of the last four games, but has shot 27% or lower from the floor in two of the four.

Regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s improved each week. He can shoot it from anywhere on the floor and has the length to go up and get the rebound, as well.

It’s going to be very tough for the Vols to knock off Quickley off his game, so hopefully he has another cold night to help ease the challenge.

Most Recent

Kentucky rebounded from its first loss in four games with an 80-72 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs earlier in the week.

The Wildcats never trailed during the game en route to their 14th consecutive victory over the Bulldogs. Richards hung 26 points on State’s defense, but the wildest part is that 25 of the 26 points came in the second half.

EJ Montgomery looked very, very good and Quickley added 21 points of his own. He made all 14 free throw attempts on the night. The Wildcats made 31 of 36 attempts from the charity stripe as team.

The Wildcats finished 1-of-10 from 3, but a strong inside game helped offset the cold shooting and obviously, the fouls helped, as well.

It was a pretty good performance on both ends of the court that should have the team prepared for Saturday’s contest.

Game Outlook

The Vols showed a ton of heart and effort on the court against the Crimson Tide and there’s not much reason to think that Rick Barnes’ group won’t be up and ready for another fight on Saturday.

The clear advantage here is Kentucky’s size in the paint. They have two forwards in Richards and Montgomery that both measure over 6-foot-10. Tennessee will have to play sound defense and must be on top of things when it comes to the rotation.

Tennessee’s post game - both offense and defense - will have to be on point, but I don’t know how they’ll be able to work around the behemoths that will be clogging the paint. The Vols will also need someone to hit consistently from downtown to stretch out Kentucky’s defense, as well.

But as a team, Kentucky can play inefficiently on offense at times. Tennessee’s defense, especially Pons, will be critical in Saturday’s matchup. If the defense can find a way to contain Richards, then things could get intense for the Cats.

It’s no secret that Kentucky (mainly Calipari) struggles in Knoxville. The Wildcats are 3-6 in Thompson-Boling Arena under Coach Cal and haven’t won in the building since 2015.

This team will be prepared. The crowd will be ready. But will the Vols have enough to get the job done?

I picked against them Tuesday and we saw how that turned out, so I’m going to stick with winning formula, here. The Vols lose this one, but they give Kentucky all it can handle.