Kentucky (17-7, 8-3 SEC) at Tennessee (13-10, 5-6 SEC)
Saturday, Feb. 16, 1:00 p.m. ET
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) . Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Kentucky leads, 149-66
Probable Kentucky Starters
F-Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-0, 245, FR, (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, .639 FG%)
F-Alex Poythress, 6-7, 240, FR, (12.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, .581 FG%)
G-Julius Mays, 6-2, 190, GRAD, (9.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
G-Archie Goodwin, 6-4, 198, FR, (13.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.1 apg)
G-Ryan Harrow, 6-2, 170, SO, (9.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.2 apg)
Key Reserves: Kyle Wiltjer (6-10, 240, SO); Jarrod Polson (6-2, 189, JR); Jon Hood (6-7, 215, JR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (12.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, .561 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (8.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 500 FG%)
G-Armani Moore, 6-5, 205, FR, (2.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, JR, (13.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.8 apg)
G-Trae Golden, 6-2, 205, JR, (10.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.8 apg)
Key Reserves: Skylar McBee (6-3, 195, SR); Kenny Hall (6-9, 230, SR); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); Derek Reese (6-7, 218, FR); Quinton Chievous (6-5, 200, FR)
The opening tip
There’s a hint of optimism in the air in Knoxville about Tennessee basketball. It’s only in part because the Vols knocked off South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the past week for their first two road games of the year. Getting those wins were important, but it’s more the way they played – particularly the performances of Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden – that gives fans some hope that a strong finish could be coming.
For Stokes, the light came on about a month ago and hasn’t dimmed in the midst of a six-game streak of double-doubles. The sophomore credits a higher level of focus and more effort for his recent run through the SEC.
McRae is coming off his first career double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds) at Vanderbilt. When Golden is on the floor at point guard, McRae can play more of a shooting guard role and focus less on managing the entire offense.
In two games since his return from an injured hamstring, Golden has 28 points, four assists, four rebounds and just four turnovers. He returned to the starting lineup at Vandy on Wednesday – a place he will likely remain if he stays that productive.
Those three are the nucleus around which the likes of Josh Richardson, Armani Moore, Skylar McBee, Kenny Hall, Derek Reese and Quinton Chievous can find their role.
Chievous, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise the last two games. After sitting on the bench for nine straight games, he’s averaged 4.5 point per game in the last two contests and provides a defensive spark in his limited minutes.
After clearing the hurdle of finding success on the road, Tennessee returns home Saturday with another challenge – beating Kentucky. That task feels a little more manageable with the Wildcats’ star forward Nerlens Noel done for the season with a torn ACL sustained at Florida last Tuesday. Noel had 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and four steals in Kentucky’s 75-65 win over Tennessee in Lexington on Jan. 15.
The unfortunate injury to one of the nation’s premier defenders is a setback to a team that had won five straight before Noel went down in a 69-52 loss in Gainesville.
It doesn’t leave Kentucky void of talent, though. A cast of former five-star recruits will still be available, including massive 7-0 forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who will be in charge of keeping Stokes away from the bucket. Stokes has struggled at times against tall, rangy defenders – a description that perfectly fits Cauley-Stein.
Athletic scorers such as Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress compliment sharpshooters Kyle Wiltjer (.408 3PT%) and Julius Mays (.380 3PT%) to form a prolific Kentucky offense.
Depth and overall experience are weak spots for the Wildcats, but their talent has been able to overcome that many times this season. Losing Noel will be a blow, but Kentucky still has the look of an NCAA Tournament team for now.
Coach Cuonzo Martin on Stokes leading the offense: “We’ve identified that Jarnell (Stokes) has really stepped up as our guy. The offense flows through Jarnell, as opposed to the beginning of the season.”
Tennessee has won four straight games against the defending national champion at home. . Though Kentucky owns a huge lead in the series, no team has defeated Kentucky more than UT (66 wins). . Stokes has more double-doubles than anybody in the SEC and his current six-game streak is the second most in the nation behind O.D. Anosiki of Siena (7). . McRae leads the SEC with 36.1 minutes per game in conference contests this season. McRae, Stokes, Richardson and Golden all played 32 or more minutes at Vanderbilt. . Tennessee is 9-3 at home this season. … Stokes only played 15 minutes at Kentucky earlier this season in large part due to foul trouble.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga