The sixth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, who clinched the 49th SEC title in program history on Saturday, will play their home finale on Tuesday against the Tennessee Volunteers.
Kentucky (24-5, 14-2 SEC) has won eight straight games, and they moved up two spots in the Associated Press poll this week.
The Wildcats have come a long way since an early season home setback against Evansville as well as two straight December losses on a neutral court in Las Vegas — to Utah and Ohio State by a combined nine points — had left some in Big Blue Nation concerned that this would be a lost season.
Instead, the Wildcats have grown into national title contenders, thanks in part to guard Immanuel Quickley, who has made a strong case for SEC Player of the Year honors.
“I think a lot of people doubted us early,” said Quickley, who is leading the team in scoring (16.3 points per game), free-throw percentage (92.2) and 3-point percentage (42.0). “We lost a couple of tough games in Vegas, and people were questioning if we could win a championship. But we stayed faithful to the grind.”
Besides Quickley, the Wildcats rely on point guard Ashton Hagans, who is averaging 11.5 points and tops the team in assists (6.4) and steals (2.0).
Nick Richards, Kentucky’s 6-11, 245-pound junior center, averages 13.9 points and leads Kentucky in rebounds (7.8), blocks (2.2) and field-goal percentage (66.2). For a big man, he is also a good shooter from the foul line (75.4 percent).
The other Wildcats player of note is 6-3 freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, who is second on the team in scoring (14.0) and assists (3.1).
“I never stopped believing in this group,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I said after Vegas, ‘We’ll be fine.’ I knew we’d be fine.”
Tennessee beat Kentucky two out of three times last season, including a win in the SEC Tournament. But that was an outstanding Vols team that won 31 games and made it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament.
This season is a whole different story. The Vols (16-13, 8-8) are just 3-7 on the road and will need to win the SEC Tournament to make the NCAA field.
This season’s drop-off can be explained rather easily. Vols coach Rick Barnes lost four of his starters, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, who is now with the Boston Celtics.
The Volunteers lost a combined 56.2 points per game with the combined departures of Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander.
Lamonte Turner, a 6-2 senior guard, was the only returning starter, but he announced in December that he would have season-ending shoulder surgery.
Santiago Vescovi, a 6-3 freshman guard from Uruguay, has replaced Turner in the starting lineup and is averaging 11.0 points. He arrived on campus in December and was eligible to play on Jan. 3.
“His story is incredible,” Barnes said of Vescovi, who leads Tennessee’s active players in assists (3.9). “He’s fearless. I don’t know of anyone who has ever had just three days of practice and then started every game as a freshman.”
Jordan Bowden, a 6-5 senior guard, leads Tennessee in scoring (13.7). John Fulkerson, a 6-9, 210 junior, is Tennessee’s only frontcourt starter, and he leads the team in rebounds (5.9) while averaging 13.1 points.
Still, the last time the Vols met the Wildcats, Kentucky defeated host Tennessee 77-64 on Feb. 8.
“I think Kentucky is the most under-appreciated team in the country,” Barnes said. “I think Kentucky and Kansas are the two best teams in college basketball.”
–Field Level Media