UT-UK role reversal

As usual, an underdog with nothing to lose will be looking to upset a high-ranking opponent when Tennessee and Kentucky collide tonight at 9 in Rupp Arena.

This time, though, the roles are reversed.

Tonight it will be Tennessee that brings the gaudy record (16-1) and the lofty national ranking (No. 3 in the AP poll), while it will be Kentucky that brings the mediocre record (7-9) and the back-to-the-wall mentality into the fray.

Unfortunately for the Vols, records and rankings won't be a factor once the ball goes up for the opening tipoff. Instead, this game will hinge on intensity and execution.

"It's going to be real big, intense," Vol senior JaJuan Smith said. "Both teams are going to put their records behind them. It's a big rivalry for both teams."

Tennessee's all-time record in games played at Lexington is a woeful 16 wins and 81 losses. Current Vol head man Bruce Pearl is 1-1 there but predecessors Buzz Peterson, Jerry Green, Kevin O'Neill, Wade Houston, Don DeVoe and Cliff Wettig were a combined 2-27.

Even when Kentucky is bad, the Big Blue tends to be good at home.

"It's a big challenge for us," Smith said. "A lot of teams don't win at Rupp Arena, so we're going to try and be one of the few."

Kentucky's 7-9 record under first-year coach Billy Gillispie is one of the most shocking developments in college basketball this season. The Wildcats already have suffered home-floor losses to Gardner Webb (84-68) on Nov. 3, to North Carolina (86-77) on Dec. 1, to San Diego (81-72) on Dec. 29 and to Louisville (89-75) on Jan. 5.

The Big Blue showed signs of life in the past 10 days, however, upending previously unbeaten Vanderbilt Jan. 12 in Lexington, playing Mississippi State to a 69-64 loss Jan. 15 in Starkville and pushing Florida into overtime before losing last Saturday in Gainesville.

"Kentucky is playing much better now," Pearl said. "They've had a tough row. They beat Vanderbilt in double overtime, went down and gave a very good Mississippi State team a tough game and then lost at Florida in overtime."

And, as Vanderbilt discovered, playing at Lexington makes Kentucky roughly 15 points better. Pearl puts it this way: "When they're playing at Rupp, it means there are a lot of elements you've got to go up against."

For instance: A Big Blue confidence level that tends to be missing on the road, a decibel level that tends to be off the charts and an officiating crew that tends to give the home team every close call.

Based on Gillispie's overwhelming success as Texas A&M, no one expected him to get off to such a rocky start at Kentucky. Pearl says that's an occupational hazard every coach faces in Year 1 at a new school, however.

"There's an adjustment period that takes place in any coaching change," the Vol head man said. "Part of buying into it is seeing it work. I remember back to my first year at Tennessee. The last two players to buy into the system were Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson. It wasn't so much questioning whether it would work, but it was important to see it work. It isn't what you do, but how you do it. You've got to believe in what you're doing in order to succeed."

Although Kentucky's record is awful, the Wildcats will pose some matchup problems for Tennessee tonight. The Big Blue's greatest strength is rebounding, which is the Vols' greatest weakness. In addition, the Cats are potent in the paint, whereas Tennessee's inside game is erratic at best.

"Kentucky is leading the SEC in rebound margin, and Tennessee is down near the bottom," Pearl noted. "We've just got to keep people off the offensive boards.

"The other thing is our post defense. Patrick Patterson is a McDonald's All-America, and he's a load on the inside."

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