Road Warriors

Never mind that the Kentucky Wildcats are significantly bigger than the Tennessee Vols at virtually every position. Never mind that the Big Blue is more experienced, higher ranked and on a better roll.

The factor that may weigh heaviest in Kentucky's favor tonight is this: The game is NOT being played at Rupp Arena.

Incredible as it sounds, the Big Blue actually has a better Southeastern Conference record on the road (3-1) than it does on its home floor (4-2). Consider: Kentucky trounced South Carolina by 38 points (87-49) in Columbia but prevailed by only six (95-89) in the rematch at Lexington. In other words, UK was 32 points better on the road than it was at home.

So, the fact tonight's game is being played at Thompson-Boling Arena shouldn't provide a whole lot of comfort for Vol fans. Nor should recent history. The Big Orange beat the Big Blue at Rupp Arena last season but lost to Kentucky at TBA three weeks later.

Clearly, the Wildcats are road warriors who seem to elevate their play when they compete in front of hostile crowds. However, they're going against a Tennessee team that is 13-0 at home this season. Consider: The Vols lost by one point at Vanderbilt, then romped by 27 in the rematch at Knoxville.

Is Tennessee's home-court advantage worth 28 points? It may need to be if the Vols are to win tonight. The Big Blue blitzed them 76-57 Jan. 28 in Lexington. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl hasn't forgotten.

"Kentucky beat us by 19," he said, "which is the largest margin of defeat for a (visiting SEC) team this year."

Wildcat coach Tubby Smith insists that the earlier game has no bearing on this one, however.

"We played well here against Tennessee," he said, "but they didn't have Chris Lofton."

True. Sidelined by a sprained ankle when the Vols lost at Lexington, Lofton will be in the starting lineup for tonight's rematch. He isn't 100 percent but he played well enough last Saturday against Vanderbilt to score 16 points. It's obvious the Vols are a different team with him on the floor.

"They seem to play with more confidence," Smith said. "I'm sure he's still getting his wind back after being out for a few games. He never loses his eye. He's a guy that you have to stay with all the time. He can make it from anywhere on the court when he crosses half court, and that's a tremendous weapon to have on your team."

Whereas Lofton has rejoined Tennessee's lineup since the earlier UK game, the Wildcats are expected to open with the same five they started in Lexington. That would be 6-11 Randolph Morris (15.7 points per game) at center and 6-8 Bobby Perry (7.0) at forward, with 6-6 Derrick Jasper (4.8), 6-5 Joe Crawford (14.3) and 6-2 Ramel Bradley (14.2) at the guard spots.

Kentucky, ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press, is 18-6 overall and 7-3 in league play. Unranked Tennessee is 17-8 and 5-5.

The Wildcats are the SEC's best defensive team, allowing foes to shoot just 39.1 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Vols fell short of those numbers in the earlier meeting at Lexington, hitting just 37.9 percent from the field and 29.6 from beyond the arc.

The Big Orange actually led the earlier game 32-31 at the break, only to suffer a total meltdown during the final 20 minutes. UK dominated the second half 45-25 to win handily.

Tonight's game will be televised by ESPN with a 7 o'clock tipoff.

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