Tennessee welcomes a familiar foe to Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday with unranked Kentucky coming to town for the second matchup in as many weeks for the border rivals.
The Wildcats held the lead over Tennessee for much of the matchup in Lexington before the Vols’ freshman duo of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer exploded, combining for 50 points in the 82-71 win.
"(They) bullied us, and they are freshman,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said following the loss. “They were the best two guards are on the court, whether they are freshmen, seniors, sophomores, whatever, they were the best two. But again, they were best two because they were physical and they bullied us. It wasn’t like they were jacking threes and going nuts. They just went to wherever they wanted to on the court and either went into your body and shot or jumped over and you shot.”
Springer has been on a tear since his 23 point performance in Lexington, averaging 22.5 points in his last four contests. Johnson hasn’t been bad either in that stretch, averaging 14.3 points per contest.
It’s been a disappointing season for Calipari and the Wildcats, recording a 7-13 (6-7 SEC) record to date. However, the SEC record shows a clearer picture of Kentucky, leading a Tennessee assistant to believe they’re one of the most underrated teams in the nation.
"I think that there may not be a team in the country that have not lost more single possession games,” Tennessee assistant Kim English said. “I'm not sure there is a team that has played as many single possession games as those guys. Winning and losing, the bounce of a ball, the blow of a whistle; the margin of winning and losing is so small. They've had so many games like that. At the end of the day as a coach that knows those guys from the recruiting process, when those names are being read off and you know the ability that Davion Mintz, Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson, Keon Brooks, and all these really, really talented players have; they're a much better basketball team than their record might suggest."
One of Kentucky’s largest issues this season has been its sluggish offense. The Wildcats rank just 13th in the SEC, scoring 69.9 points per game. However, Kentucky has started to show real improvement on that side of the ball in past weeks.
Kentucky’s offense showed signs of life against Tennessee, especially in the first half where they scored 42 points. Since the loss, Kentucky’s offense has been much better, scoring 80 plus points in its last three contests.
Sophomore Keion Brooks Jr. was instrumental in building Kentucky’s double-digit lead over the Vols’ earlier this month, scoring a team high 23 points. It wasn’t until Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes switched Josiah Jordan James on him that the Vols slowed him down. James missed Wednesday’s win over South Carolina and his availability and productivity will be worth watching.
Freshman B.J. Boston is another reason for Kentucky’s recent offensive improvements. The projected first round pick is averaging over 15 points per game in his last three contests.
"Their talent is as good as anyone in America,” English said. “They have a roster that is filled with very good offensive players and really good athletes. Keion Brooks had a career night against us. Devon Askew got going in a really good way. Isaiah Jackson is a one-and-done talent who is just a freak athlete. Olivier Sarr made shots from the perimeter. They're a really good team. Coach Schwartz studies them great. We'll talk about strategy today, but it's a rivalry game and it means a lot to the kids on both sides."
Tip-off from Thompson-Boling Arena is set for 1 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on CBS.