Tennessee and Kentucky couldn’t be much different right now. The Volunteers are rolling, doubling up SEC teams to open conference play. Kentucky though? Well, it’s been a struggle.
John Calipari’s team lost to South Carolina on Tuesday night, following up a blowout loss to Alabama over the weekend. Missouri beat them convincingly to open SEC play. Now 10-6 overall and 1-3 in the SEC, the pressure is starting to mount. We’re seeing an all-too-familiar story playing out once again — a ridiculously talented roster on paper that just can’t seem to figure it out.
Kentucky fans aren’t happy, and the Cal-to-Texas chatter has already begun.
Things are seemingly just a couple steps away from coming unglued in Lexington, and Calipari now has to face one of the best teams in the country on the road.
“Today was a sense of urgency,” Calipari said after the loss to South Carolina. “So now we got the next one. It’s a hard game up at Tennessee. They’re really good. All right, let’s go. Let’s see where we are. You just keep marching.”
Rick Barnes has seen this story a few times before, noting that his teams typically get better as the season goes on.
“Well, I know that a couple years ago we went up and had a good win up there and they came in here and just owned us,” Barnes said of Kentucky. “Just did what they wanted to do. Had a huge win against us where—I’ll say the same about John Calipari’s teams, they’re going to get better. They’re going to keep getting better.”
For years Kentucky has been built on a string of one-and-dones, and it almost always took Calipari a couple of months to really get them playing the right way. However, Kentucky actually has a veteran core this time — Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin, CJ Frederick, Antonio Reeves — all seniors. So this result is definitely surprising.
“I didn’t see the game (against South Carolina) — I don’t know what happened there and I know he’s dealt with some injuries too,” Barnes said. “Someone did tell me that Cason Wallace did get hurt tonight. Which I don’t know, somebody said that to me. The fact is, I have so much respect for John. I’ve known him for a lifetime in this business, he’ll have this team ready. I think our guys certainly know that.”
Wallace, a five-star freshman guard that picked Kentucky over Tennessee, did miss most of the game with back spasms. That’s been a recurring issue this season for Wallace, and his status for Saturday is unknown at this time.
Tennessee last saw Kentucky in Tampa, where they won 69-62 on their way to an SEC Tournament title. The Wildcats and Volunteers have split their regular season meetings for the last four years now.
Kentucky is ranked 44th overall by KenPom, with the 93rd ranked defense and 20th ranked offense. They run into the nation’s top defense on Saturday.
Tennessee and Kentucky are set for a noon ET tip-off from Thompson-Boling Arena. ESPN will have the coverage.