There SEC has had a different regular season champion for the last three seasons. Tennessee would make it a fourth in 2019 if it can finish what it has started and win the league outright.
That would require winning some monster road matchups. The Vols have yet to play at LSU, which is just a game back at 10–1, fourth-place Mississippi, preseason top-10 Auburn, and, the #5 Kentucky Wildcats tonight.
The ‘Cats were on a 20–2 run since their embarrassing loss to Duke on opening night, losing those two games by a combined three points. They made it three losses by five points on Tuesday, in a home loss to LSU by a deuce in the lead-up to this one. Now, Kentucky, which has two conference losses, has to do what it could not on Tuesday and defend Rupp Arena if it wants any shot at stopping the Vols.
The only team to have stopped Rick Barnes’ senior roster this season was a healthy Kansas, at the time ranked #1, on November 23 at Madison Square Garden. Otherwise, Tennessee is a perfect: 23–0 with 11 of those wins coming in the SEC. The toughest conference test, at least on paper, comes at 8 pm in Lexington, Kentucky.
In that November 23 overtime loss, Tennessee did not dominate the paint as it has in just about every other game this season because Kansas was healthy with Udoka Azubuike. The Vols still finished with one more rebound than the Jayhawks but it became clear neither team would have its way in the paint and perimeter play decided the outcome.
I believe Kentucky has the personnel to make it a similar sort of game on Saturday, at least at home. The 6’8″ and 240-lb. PJ Washington anchors the frontline and Reid Travis, at nearly the same size, plays a key role in this game as a mobile big with a motor to match Grant Williams’ and Admiral Schofields’. He’ll almost always find himself on one of the two muscly forwards.
At 6’11” and 240 lbs., Nick Richards is a third big who can bang with Yves Pons and John Fulkerson off of Tennessee’s bench. He is one against two, though, as Travis may be against the combination of 240-lb. bowling balls that are Williams and Schofield, unless Washington can give him some help there. Otherwise, the smaller, faster Keldon Johnson (6’6″, 210 lb.) will have to step up and use what he has to try and keep the older, stronger players out of the paint.
The home court means something, though, and it just may give Kentucky the extra energy it needs to take on all of Tennessee’s muscle with one or two less bodies. It if does, the Wildcats won’t simply win the game, they will just play Tennessee to a stalemate in the paint, which is where it wins most of its games.
Like Kansas did at Madison Square Garden, Kentucky will have to win this game on the perimeter with Tyler Herro, Johnson and Ashton Hagans. They trio isn’t much more talented than the more senior group of Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, and Lamonte Turner but it represents Kentucky’s best chance to take down #1.
Kentucky may have just a little less than Tennessee does but the home court takes care of that. This will be a tight game, played in the 70s, between two similarly built rosters and I have Kentucky -2/2.5.
The early line released in Vegas has Kentucky -3/-3.5 so I’m on Tennessee with the points. Understand there isn’t much value to be had but who doesn’t want prime time action? The slightest of leans on Tennessee and it’s just that much better if you can shop a 3.5.
Play: Tennessee +3.5