FACTS & STATS: Site: Rupp Arena (23,500) -- Lexington, Kentucky. Television: ESPN. Home Record: UT 6-2, UK 8-2. Away Record: UT 0-3, UK 1-2. Neutral Record: UT 2-1, UK 1-1. Conference Record: UT 0-2, UK 1-1. Series Record: Kentucky leads, 148-66.
GAME NOTES: Both the Tennessee Volunteers and the Kentucky Wildcats attempt to bounce back from losses as they meet at Rupp Arena for an SEC showdown on Tuesday night.
After closing out December with four straight victories, the start of 2013 has not been kind to Tennessee as it has lost a season-high three straight games, most recently falling in a nail-biter at Alabama on Saturday, 68-65. The setback dropped the Vols to 0-2 in conference play and 8-6 overall.
Despite Kentucky's seemingly solid 10-5 overall record, it has undoubtedly been one of the biggest disappointments in the nation considering its sky-high expectations, as it was the third-ranked team in the preseason polls after winning the national championship in 2012. The team's is coming off one of its most disappointing efforts of the season, as it lost at home to Texas A&M, 83-71.
Kentucky has won five straight games versus Tennessee to improve its record in the all-time series to 148-66.
Tennessee held a four-point lead at the half against Alabama, and the Vols hung close throughout until the Crimson Tide went on a 7-0 run to break a 55-55 tie with under four minutes to play to pull away for the win. UT was solid from the field, making 26-of-55 attempts (.473), but it made good on just 5-of-15 from 3-point range and lost the turnover battle, 16-7. Jordan McRae shot 8-of-14 from the floor for 21 points, and after failing to reach 20 points in any of his first 11 games this season, he has now scored 20 or more in three straight tilts, upping his season average to a team-best 13.3 ppg. The Vols boast a modest scoring average (65.2 ppg), but they have been able to stifle teams at the defensive end by allowing just 61.8 ppg. Jarnell Stokes is a steady presence in the frontcourt with 11.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 1.0 bpg, while shooting 52.3 percent from the field. Trae Golden (11.1 ppg, 4.1 apg) has struggled to find his shot (.357), and he was relegated to a bench role the last time out.
Kentucky was overmatched at home by Texas A&M, getting outshot from the field, .525 to .429, and it fell to 0-5 when trailing at the half this season. Despite the loss, Nerlens Noel continues to demonstrate his incredible versatility as he finished with a line of 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, seven blocks and four steals. Archie Goodwin (17 points), Ryan Harrow (14 points) and Alex Poythress (12 points, six rebounds) all put forth solid efforts in the setback. Recent struggles aside, when the Wildcats are good, they are very good, outscoring opponents by an average of 15.3 ppg while shooting an SEC-best 48.5 percent from the floor. Goodwin is not only the leading scorer at 15.7 ppg, but he also dishes out 3.6 apg. Poythress adds 13.4 ppg (.632 FG percentage) and 6.3 rpg, while Noel contributes 10.8 ppg and 9.3 rpg (second in SEC). Noel is also a menace at the defensive end of the court, swatting away 3.7 bpg and coming up with 2.7 spg, and he is on pace to be the first Division I player to average 3.5 blocks and 2.5 steals per contest since Bo Outlaw accomplished the feat for Houston during the 1992-93 season. Rounding out a very deep UK rotation is Kyle Wiltjer (10.5 ppg), Harrow (10.1 ppg), Julius Mays (8.5 ppg) and Willie Cauley-Stein (7.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.1 bpg).
Even though the Wildcats have unquestioned talent, they have yet to put it all together to become the elite team they are capable of being. Whether or not they can eventually evolve into a title-contending club remains to be seen, but they should at least be able to bounce back to defeat a struggling Tennessee squad on their home floor.