NATION OF BLUE PREVIEW: Kentucky vs. Tennessee

 

Tennessee Volunteers vs. Kentucky Wildcats

Tuesday, January 15, 2013, Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY

7:00 Tipoff on ESPN/WatchESPN

 

 

After a heartbreaking loss on Saturday, the Cats look to rebound and get back into contention in the SEC, as they take on the hated Tennessee Volunteers.

 

Tennessee (8-6, 0-2 SEC), much like Kentucky, has struggled over the early part of the season. The new year hasn’t been particularly kind to the Vols, as they’ve yet to notch a win in 2013. Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee team is currently on a three-game losing skid, dropping games to Memphis, Ole Miss and Alabama.

 

The Vols are lead in scoring by junior guard Jordan McRae, who’s putting up 13.3 points per game on the season. He’s been one of the lone bright spots in the team’s recent struggles, scoring an average of 24.3 points on 53% shooting (36% from three point range) in their last three games.  The Cat’s simply cannot allow McRae to get hot the way they allowed Texas A&M’s Elston Turner did, who torched them for 40 points last Saturday.

 

Another potential stumbling block for the Cats is sophomore forward (and former UK recruiting target) Jarnell Stokes, who leads the team in rebounds (7.7) and blocked shots (1.0) as well as being their second-best scorer (11.2). He’s had at least nine boards in half of Tennessee’s games this year, and will pose a formidable challenge to Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.

 

PREDICTIONS

 

Simply put, this is a must-win game on multiple levels. For one, you’ve already lost twice in Rupp Arena this year (both to teams out of Texas, coincidentally). Back-to-back home losses would be catastrophic not only to team and fan morale, but to the Cats’ NCAA chances. Kentucky sits at an abysmal 68th in the latest RPI ratings, and If you look closer at the Cats’ NCAA resume, they have only one win over a top 100 team (Maryland at No. 91) and are 0-5 against the RPI Top 50. Also factor in that the SEC is on a severe downswing this season, with only two teams in the RPI Top 25 (Florida at No. 9 and Missouri at No. 23), there are very few chances left for a resume-building win (they don’t have one yet). A loss to Tennessee (No. 99 RPI) at home would most certainly count as a “bad loss” for the selection committee and would be one more nail in the NIT coffin.

 

Of course, the Cats really have looked better as of late. I thought their second half performance against Texas A&M was commendable, Elston Turner’s NBA Jam “He’s On Fire!” performance non-withstanding. Ryan Harrow is showing some serious strides in his development, and Nerlens Noel continues to be a bright spot in an otherwise ho-hum season. There’s still a LOT of room left for improvement, the team as a whole needs to defend better, and the highly-touted Alex Poythress needs to break whatever funk he’s been in, but things actually look better than they did a month ago.

 

Tennessee may be down, but this won’t be a cakewalk game. There’s a natural rivalry between these two schools, and you can never count anyone out of a rivalry game. Tennessee is looking to rebound from three straight losses, including an 18-point blowout against a surging Ole Miss.

 

Look for the Cats to struggle somewhat early, but pull away in the second half, sending the Cat fans away happy and their title hopes still alive

 

KENTUCKY 76, TENNESSEE 64