Men's Basketball
Big Blue Preview: Kentucky at Tennessee

Big Blue Preview: Kentucky at Tennessee

by Tim Letcher

On Friday morning, as Kentucky men’s basketball assistant coach Chuck Martin was previewing the Cats’ Saturday showdown against Tennessee in Knoxville, there was one world, or variations of it, that kept coming up. That word, physical, is how UK will need to play to beat the Southeastern Conference regular season champions on their home floor on Saturday.

When the Cats and the Vols met in Rupp Arena on Feb. 3, Kentucky got to see first-hand just how physical Tennessee can be. Now, Martin hopes that the Cats have learned what it takes to compete against a Final Four-caliber team.

“I think we’ve grown since then,” Martin said. “The level of physicality in that game was unbelievable. I think the overall physicality and intensity of that game, we had not been in that type of game at that point. We learned a lot from that first encounter.”

Martin knows that Saturday’s game between No. 15 Kentucky and No. 4 Tennessee is important, for all of the reasons that everyone will be talking about, specifically the chance for a double-bye in the SEC Tournament. But also because it’s a chance for the Cats to find out where they stand as the postseason approaches.

“For us, it’s just the next opportunity,” Martin said. “Obviously, if we win the game, the double bye is a by-product of that. But for us, it’s just simply, let’s compete. Let’s see who we are, let’s see how we measure up against one of the better teams in the country, on the road. We want to play well, we want to win the game so we have some momentum going into the SEC (Tournament) and the NCAA Tournament.”

While mentioning the postseason, Martin knows that the Cats need to focus on the task at hand and not look too far forward.

“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Martin said. “Obviously, we’re excited about the opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the country, who happens to be in our league. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere, last game of the year. They’ll be fired up, we’ll be fired up. We’re excited to see what happens.”

Kentucky comes into Saturday’s contest playing as well as it has all season. The Cats have won four in a row, and Martin believes he knows why.

“I think the biggest thing, we’ve been healthy, so we’ve had depth, which we have not had throughout the year,” Martin said. “During this stretch, for the most part, we’ve had everyone. I think since January, our freshmen are starting to turn the corner. They’re learning from every game we play. Hence, the Tennessee game. Prior to that game, they didn’t understand the level of physicality. So, we’ve gotten better. We understand the level of physicality when you play against a team like Tennessee.”

The Cats and the Vols meet in the regular season finale in a game that will be a measuring stick for both teams with the postseason beginning next week.

Last Time Out: Vanderbilt Recap

After topping the century mark in each of its last two home games, much was expected from the No. 15 Kentucky offense again in the home finale against Vanderbilt. And again, the Cats delivered a big-time offensive performance.

Kentucky (22-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) got 23 points from Rob Dillingham and 20 from Antonio Reeves to beat Vanderbilt 93-77. For Reeves, it was his sixth consecutive 20-point game.

D.J. Wagner scored 11 points and Justin Edwards had 10. Reed Sheppard had just eight points but was able to dish out 11 assists, tying his season high.

Kentucky struggled from the field early, making just two of its first eight shots, as Vanderbilt took a 6-4 lead. An Adou Thiero layup tied the game at 6-6 before a Reeves runner gave UK an 8-6 advantage.

Vandy would take an 11-10 lead on a Tyrin Lawrence three and the ‘Dores would lead 13-11 before a Wagner three gave the Cats a 14-13 lead. However, Vandy answered with a 9-2 run to take a 22-16 advantage with 9:16 left in the half.

Kentucky would get a pair of Edwards free throws and a Thiero dunk to cut the deficit to two, 22-20, before Vanderbilt scored four in a row to stretch its lead to 26-20. Another Wagner three and a Reeves jumper cut the deficit to 26-25, but the ‘Dores again scored four in a row to lead 30-25.

That’s when Dillingham went on a point-producing barrage. During a 17-8 run that gave UK a 42-38 lead, Dillingham scored 12 points and assisted on a Sheppard three. After a late Vandy basket, Reeves hit a three at the halftime buzzer and the Cats led 45-40 at the break.

Kentucky missed its first three shots of the second half before Edwards hit a three from the right side, giving UK a 48-43 advantage. In fact, Edwards would score UK’s first eight points of the half as the Cats built a 53-45 lead.

Vanderbilt would not go away. In fact, the ‘Dores went on a 7-2 run to get within three, 55-52, before Dillingham made consecutive baskets to extend the UK lead to 59-52 with 13:01 to play.

As he did in the first half, Dillingham caught fire again in the second. He scored seven straight UK points as the Cats built a 68-55 lead with 9:25 to play.

A Look at the SEC Race with One to Play

If the season concluded on March 6, the Wildcats would own the No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But with just one date of games remaining, there’s a lot left to be decided from now until tipoff in Nashville on March 13. Kentucky can finish anywhere from second or fifth depending on the results from Saturday’s season finale.

• How to clinch the No. 2 seed
– Kentucky beats Tennessee AND South Carolina loses
– Kentucky beats Tennessee AND South Carolina, Auburn and Alabama ALL win
– Kentucky loses to Tennessee, but South Carolina, Alabama, Auburn all lose as well

• How to clinch the No. 3 seed
– Kentucky and South Carolina both win, and either Alabama OR Auburn loses
– South Carolina wins AND Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky all lose

• How to clinch the No. 4 seed
– Alabama OR Auburn AND South Carolina all win and Kentucky loses
– South Carolina wins, Kentucky loses and EITHER Alabama or Auburn loses

• How to clinch the No. 5 seed
– Kentucky loses AND South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn all win

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