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Mike Lopresti | | February 14, 2019

Tennessee vs. Kentucky preview, history and why this one can be special

Can No. 1 Tennessee keep streaking at No. 5 Kentucky this Saturday?

Tennessee is ranked No. 1, and Kentucky isn’t. Right there, you get an idea of the odd karma that will be at work Saturday night in Rupp Arena.

With these two, there is the past, and there is the present.

Start with the present. Tennessee is the team everybody is chasing with its 23-1 record, a nation’s longest 19-game winning streak, a school record 11-0 in the SEC, an overtime loss to Kansas away from being perfect. Kentucky is one of the pursuers, and has lost four times in the past three seasons to Tennessee. So not a lot of daylight between these two programs lately.

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But the past? Different kettle of catfish out of the Tennessee River. Oh, they’ve rivals, all right. You can drive from one to the other on I-75 in under three hours. But this isn’t Duke-North Carolina and a clash of similar aristocracy. When it comes to trophy cases and national profile, they have been as different as Big Blue Nation and Big Orange Country.

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Let's break down the two teams:

Kentucky has been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll at some point in 23 different seasons.

This is Tennessee’s fifth week ever at the top.

Kentucky has been to 17 Final Fours.

Tennessee has been to none.

Kentucky has eight national championships.

Tennessee was in the Elite Eight. Once.

Kentucky is No. 1 in Division I in all-time winning percentage, just ahead of North Carolina, Kansas and Duke.

Tennessee is No. 41, just ahead of Akron.

Kentucky has won 31 SEC tournaments, including the past four in a row.

Tennessee has won four, the most recent 40 years ago. For that matter, the entire rest of the league has 27 titles, four fewer than Kentucky.

The last time Kentucky lost to Tennessee in the SEC tournament was 1979. The last time before that was 1943.

The last time Tennessee lost to Kentucky in the SEC tournament was 11 months ago.

This will be the 226th time they’ve met.

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But only the 16th time Tennessee is the higher rated team.

Still, as Wildcat history goes, the Vols have been something of a pest.

Kentucky is 154-71 overall vs. Tennessee,  including 92-17 at home.

But the Wildcats have lost to the Vols more often than any other opponent.

Tennessee has won in Rupp Arena only once the past 12 years.

But that was last time the Vols were there, a year ago.

Kentucky has 48 SEC regular season titles, Tennessee only 10.

But it's the Vols who are defending champions.

So now what? Kentucky will be Tennessee’s first ranked opponent since Gonzaga in early December. The Zags were No. 1, but not after the Vols beat them. This, however, is a neighborhood brawl, beneath the banners of all those Wildcat retired jerseys. Soulful My Old Kentucky Home vs. rousing Rocky Top.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes stressed perspective to the media after the Vols’ win over South Carolina Wednesday night.

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“I know we have Kentucky next, but we have to start out next with what we did not do well tonight,” he said. “I am concerned about every game, I play every game in my head before we play it . . . I like to think that if everything goes in and we play the way we are capable of, we should be able to handle a lot. There is no doubt that Kentucky feels the same way.”

Odd stat No. 1. In a six-season span from 1975-80, bridging the Ray Mears and Don DeVoe regimes, Tennessee beat Kentucky nine of 11 meetings – accounting for 13 percent of total Volunteer victories in a series that goes back 110 years.

Odd stat No. 2. Kentucky has never lost to Tennessee in a season it ended up as national champion.

Mears fought Kentucky to a 15-15 draw in his time, one of his greatest achievements. He was also a showman whose teams performed dribbling and passing tricks during warmups, and he would occasionally send one of his players onto the court before the game on a unicycle to get the crowd going.

Not that yesterday will matter much for either team Saturday night, but it is still partly about a clash of eras; Tennessee yearning to keep proving itself as an equal, Kentucky wishing to maintain the old order, by defrocking the Vols of their top ranking. 

Oh, and here's one more comparison, to suggest how different they are.

Kentucky's freshmen are averaging nearly 45 points a game.

Tennessee has had one freshman play nine scoreless minutes.

Barnes is 4-3 for Tennessee against Kentucky, so he understands how to vex the Wildcats. Might he have Admiral Schofield ride a unicycle Saturday night into Rupp Arena? Nah, that’d be like pedaling into the Vatican.

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