The last time Tennessee dropped a game against rival Kentucky in Knoxville, Tennessee had different coaches in football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball. It was Feb. 17, 2015 when Kentucky last won at Tennessee.
Tennessee will be looking for more of that upset energy Saturday afternoon when the Vols host No. 15 Kentucky to Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I don’t think there’s a better place to play basketball than Thompson-Boling Arena,” head coach Rick Barnes said of the Vols’ success against Kentucky in Knoxville. “Our fans are terrific, but this rivalry goes back long before any of us and that’s part of it.”
Its perhaps the most impressive part of Rick Barnes impressive tenure in Knoxville. The 65-year old North Carolina native is 6-4 against Kentucky in his four and a half years at Tennessee, including a 4-0 record inside Thompson-Boling.
Saturday will present another chance for Tennessee to pick up a win over its northern border rival, but it won’t come easy as John Calipari’s Wildcats are starting to hit their stride midway through the conference slate. Kentucky has won five of its last six including impressive road wins at Texas Tech and Arkansas.
“It’s a typical Kentucky team in that they’re starting to play their best basketball this time of year,” Barnes said.
It’s a Kentucky team that has found its identity on the defensive end of the court. The Wildcats rank fifth in the SEC in scoring defense but first in opponents field goal percentage.
“I think John (Calipari) has done a real good job with his team,” Barnes said. “They’re as good of a team defensively than he’s had in a long time. They’ve really bought into how he wants to play.”
“(Ashton) Hagans is a really good on ball defender. I would imagine he’s going to put a lot of pressure on Santiago (Vescovi). They got some rim protectors, they’re very very sound. They don’t take many chances.”
Kentucky isn’t too shabby on the offensive side of the ball either. Led by a four headed monster of Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey, the Wildcats average 75.2 points per game, good for fifth in the SEC.
Additionally, Kentucky averages the third most assist in the SEC dishing out 14.2 per contest. The Wildcats want to play inside-out on offense, and they shoot less 3-pointers than any other team in the league.
No one stirs Kentucky’s inside-out offense quite like its junior forward Nick Richards. The former 5-star recruit has started playing like one in his junior season, averaging 14.6 and 8.3 rebounds per game.
“I’m really impressed with Nick (Richards),” Barnes said. “John and his staff have done a great job developing him. … You have to give him (Richards) credit for buying in to what they want him to do.”
Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley matched Richards’ production on the offensive end of the court scoring 14.6 points per game.
Point guard Ashton Hagans runs the show for the Wildcats both on offense and defense. The sophomore guard is perhaps the SEC’s best on ball defender averaging 2.1 steals a game. Hagans’ game has improved on the offensive end as well. After averaging just seven points a game as a freshman, Hagans is averaging 12.5 points and seven assists a game this season.
On a Kentucky team that’s lacking the normal freshman star power Tyrese Maxey looks like a typical Calipari one-and-done recruit. The freshman from Texas is averaging 14 points a game on 42% 3-point shooting while grabbing 4.2 rebounds and dishing 3.2 assists a game.
Tipoff from Thompson-Boling Arena is set for 1 p.m. and will be broadcast on CBS.