Tonight, Tennessee men’s basketball takes on No. 6 Kentucky for the second time this year. While the Vols are currently trying to salvage their postseason hopes, this matchup comes a few days after the Wildcats clinched the SEC regular season championship for the 49th time in program history.
The last time these two teams met, Kentucky defeated Tennessee 77-64 in Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols kept the game close and made a run in the second half; the skill of the Wildcats was too much for the Big Orange to handle.
Kentucky is on a roll as of late, winning 12 of their last 13 games. Their most recent game was a win over Auburn, avenging their lone loss in the aforementioned stretch. However, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes thinks the Wildcats are even better than people are giving them credit for.
“I think Kentucky is the most underrated and underappreciated team in the country right now. I think them and Kansas are the two best teams in the country. They (Kentucky) haven't lost since their game at Auburn, and Kansas I don't think has lost since their game at home against Baylor. Right now, those are the two best teams in college basketball.”
The key players for the Wildcats will be Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards. Since entering conference play, Quickley has been averaging 4.8 rebounds and 19.1 points a game while shooting an impressive 43.2% from the field and 47.1% from three point range. Richards has also played at high level in conference play, averaging 7.8 rebounds and 14.7 points a game, as well as blocking 34 shots in 16 contests.
“They have two players, (Quickley) and (Richards),” Barnes said, “that are player of the year type candidates. there's a lot of terrific coaches in our league and nobody has done a better job than John Calipari. So, with that said they're playing terrific defense, they get out in transition, they are as lethal as any team you will play against.”
If the Vols were able to pull off the upset, it would be only the program’s sixth win all time in Rupp Arena. It would also only be the second time that John Calipari lost to Tennessee at home since taking the Kentucky job, their lone loss coming in 2018.
Coach Barnes talked about what makes John Calipari coached teams so difficult to face for opponents.
“The free throw shooting and great defense for certain,” Barnes said. “They do make free throws. They made a lot of free throws down the stretch when they came here to play us, and we got behind and had to foul. (Calipari’s) teams always defend. They aren't going to give you anything easy. I think they have definitely improved. We talked about it last time, how much Nick Richards has improved. You look at their backcourt play all around, they have improved as well. His teams always get better around this time of year.”
Tennessee and Kentucky are set to tipoff at 9 p.m. ET in Lexington, Kentucky. The game will be available nationally on ESPN and on radio via the Vol Network.