No. 15 Kentucky begins the second half of the Southeastern Conference schedule Saturday afternoon at Tennessee tied for second place, but the Wildcats could end the day with a share of the league lead if things fall their way.
As the Wildcats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) seek their first victory over the Volunteers in Knoxville since Feb. 17, 2015, Auburn will be hosting first-place LSU in a game slated to start about an hour earlier. Wins for Kentucky and Auburn would create a three-way tie for first with Kentucky, Auburn and LSU all with 8-2 conference records.
It has been that kind of season in the SEC.
“I think the SEC is like college basketball in general,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose Volunteers (13-9, 5-4 SEC) could use a big win to get into the postseason picture. “There’s so much balance. I think there’s going to be some teams here that in the next couple of weeks are probably going to start separating themselves.”
Barnes’ notion that on any given night any team can win in the SEC was driven home Wednesday night when Vanderbilt ended a 26-game conference losing streak with a 99-90 win over LSU.
Barnes’ Vols snapped a three-game losing skid with a 69-68 win at Alabama on Tuesday night, and Kentucky handled Mississippi State 80-72 the same evening. The latter featured a bounce-back performance for Wildcats junior forward Nick Richards, who scored 25 of his career-high 27 points in the second half after managing just seven points in a loss at Auburn the previous game.
Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery also played a big role at both ends of the court for Kentucky with his defense (three steals) against Mississippi State’s double-double machine Reggie Perry to go with 12 points and eight rebounds.
“He is a premier player, one of the best players in the country,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Montgomery. “He’s just not done it yet, but tonight was that first step.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, got a big game out of junior forward John Fulkerson at Alabama. He scored a season-high 22 points for his seventh double-digit output in his past nine outings.
Fulkerson (12.0) is one of four active players averaging in double figures for the Vols, who lost veteran guard Lamonte Turner to a shoulder injury after 11 games and have been forced to mix and match much of the season.
The midseason eligibility approval for international players Santiago Vescovi (Uruguay) and 7-foot Uros Plavsic (Serbia) has provided help, but the Vols have been without injured guard Josiah-Jordan James the past two games because of a hip injury.
Vescovi (10.1 points per game in 10 games) scored only eight points but had five assists and three steals against only one turnover at Alabama.
“We had a lineup out there tonight that we never ever had to the floor. Ever,” Barnes said. “And I thought those guys on the fly really did some good things.”
After the trip to Knoxville, the Wildcats visit Vanderbilt on Tuesday. The Vols are home against Arkansas the same night.
–Field Level Media