Tennessee has a big one on Saturday — a trip to Rupp Arena to face the Kentucky Wildcats. The Volunteers are looking for their third straight win at Rupp, which for whatever reason has been kind to Tennessee over the past two seasons.
This Kentucky team is a little different, however. It’s not just a bunch of five-star recruits trying to mesh together, it’s a collection of talent — both veteran and youth — looking to reclaim the SEC crown.
Kentucky is 13-3, coming off of a win at Vanderbilt. They took their first SEC loss at LSU last week, but have since rebounded to improve to 3-1 in league play. Other losses came to Notre Dame and Duke.
The Wildcats are led by Oscar Tshiebwe, who is leading the team in both points and rebounds. The 6-9 junior is averaging 17 and 15, clearly one of the best players in the country. TyTy Washington, Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia transfer), Kellan Grady and Keion Brooks round out a complete attack from Kentucky.
“I think John has done a terrific job with his team,” Rick Barnes said. “They started out with some new pieces to the puzzle. But he’s got them playing real nice together right now. There’s not enough you can say about Tshiebwe, with what he’s doing. I mean, the last guy that I heard got 20 rebounds as many times as he has was Marvin Barnes, way back in the early ‘70s, when I think he averaged that. But what he’s doing there is phenomenal.”
Tennessee split the Kentucky series last season, with both sides picking up road wins. As mentioned above though, this is a different approach from Coach Cal. It’s a team led by upperclassmen, a clear departure from what he’s tried in the past. To this point in the season, it certainly appears to be working.
Tshiebwe has gotten most of the headlines, and is deserving of them. John Fulkerson, Olivier Nkamhoua and Olivier Plavsic will have their hands full keeping him off of the boards on Saturday.
“The biggest thing, I think, is a tremendous want to do that,” Barnes said. “Because it’s hard.
“I’m not sure how Kentucky is doing it, other than the fact that Oscar has a tremendous passion and drive to go get it. You admire it, because you want that from people. I think he understands the importance of it, anyway. I’d like to get some of our guys with that mindset, to do it night in and night out like he’s done it.”
Tennessee is coming off of a rebound win against South Carolina on Tuesday night. The Vols put the Gamecocks away quickly in the second half, getting a balanced performance from their offense on their way to a 20 point win. The early SEC schedule hasn’t been kind to Tennessee, and it won’t let up for another couple of weeks.
The Volunteers rank 13th in KenPom, while Kentucky sits at 9th. Tennessee has made a habit out of slow starts and poor shooting, neither of which will get them a win on Saturday afternoon.
Let’s see if the Rupp magic continues for Tennessee.
Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. ET on Saturday in Lexington and ESPN will have the coverage.