When Tennessee departed last year’s SEC Tournament, it was dealt a bitter defeat at the hands of conference rival Kentucky. It will have a chance to exact some revenge on Saturday.
And this time, the Vols aren’t leaving anything to chance.
Looking to record a second consecutive SEC Championship game appearance under Rick Barnes, Tennessee must overcome the opponent that has given it the most trouble.
The Wildcats hold a 12-4 record against the Vols since the conception of the SEC Tournament, but have dropped four of the last six meetings in the last two seasons.
Despite that reality, Tennessee won’t be overlooking the challenge Kentucky presents on both sides of the floor.
“We look forward to it, we just have to get better every game,” Jordan Bowden said. “You just have to get stops, rebound and execute on the offensive end.”
Boasting identical conference records led by arguably the most experienced coaches in the SEC, Tennessee and Kentucky couldn’t be more evenly matched.
Both rank in the conference’s top five in total scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding and blocks. They also rank seventh and eighth, respectively, in Kenpom’s statistical rankings.
It’s not the statistics that the Vols have their eye on, however, it’s the familiarity between both teams.
“This time of year, our guys have seen enough, we know each other,” Barnes said. “They know us as well as we know ourselves and I think vice-versa.”
Tennessee didn’t play its finest game of the season in Lexington and the Kentucky had its worst showing in conference play when the Vols returned the favor in Knoxville.
The average margin of victory during their two-game season series? 18 points, with the losing team failing to reach the 70-point mark in both contests.
Kentucky was without Reid Travis during its annual trip to Thompson-Boling Arena, but managed to remain within striking distance until Tennessee opened fire in the second half.
The same could be said of the Vols when they traveled to Rupp Arena on Feb. 16, as a six-point game at the intermission quickly turned into a Wildcats’ blowout.
One of the SEC’s lowest-volume shooting teams from beyond the arc, Tennessee’s primary focus since the postseason started has been about playing its game and not adapting to an opponent’s.
“I feel like that was the main focus...just understanding where our strengths were,” Bowden said. “Playing inside-out and taking the open shots when they’re there, but we don’t have to force anything.”
Kentucky has now taken home the SEC Tournament crown in four consecutive seasons, including six of the past nine.
John Calipari’s teams always seem to catch fire at the perfect time of year and this season has been no different. Despite losing Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the NBA Draft this past offseason, the Wildcats haven’t missed a beat.
As Tennessee looks to build its own basketball tradition, one predicated on hard work and constant success, it must first slay the Goliath.
The task won’t be easy, but that’s a reality the Vols happily accept.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game. They know it is,” Barnes said. “I think right now both teams want to try to win this conference championship.”