These two ironies lead to one interesting conclusion: The key number for the Big Orange and the Big Blue appears to be 70.
The top-ranked Vols, who average an SEC-best 82.8 points per game, have dropped just two Southeastern Conference games this year – each time failing to crack the 70-point mark. They lost 72-66 at Kentucky on Jan. 22 and fell 72-69 at Vanderbilt last Tuesday.
The unranked Wildcats, meanwhile, win by holding opponents to 70 points or less. They have allowed an SEC foe to score more than 70 points in regulation just once this year … and they lost that game by 41 points (93-52) at Vandy.
Clearly, today's noon tip-off on CBS represents a battle of wills between Tennessee's high-powered offense and Kentucky's high-energy defense. If the Vols establish their tempo, they should score in the 80s and win handily. If the Cats establish their tempo, the Vols will score in the 60s and probably lose.
Kentucky will be even more determined to keep the pace slow and the score low now that 6-9, 225-pound freshman standout Patrick Patterson is sidelined by a stress fracture. He recorded 20 points in the earlier game at Lexington, and those 20 points will be tough to recoup without him.
Minus Patterson, Kentucky may try to depend more on its perimeter game. That could be a fatal mistake. The Cats are not exceptional at shooting the 3, whereas Tennessee is exceptional at defending the 3. The Vols have limited their last 14 foes to a combined 27.6 percent success rate from beyond the arc.
With Patterson out of the picture, the Wildcats are expected to start 6-9, 195-pound Perry Stevenson in the post. His fellow starters will be 6-8, 238-pound sophomore Mark Coury (2.2 points, 2.0 rebounds per game), 6-6, 213-pound Ramon Harris (3.5 points, 3.4 rebounds), 6-5 senior Joe Crawford (16.8 points, 3.6 rebounds) and 6-2 senior Ramel Bradley (15.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists).
The game features all sorts of subplots. For instance:
- Tennessee's Chris Lofton, a Maysville native who was snubbed by UK recruiters four years ago, will be facing his home-state university for the final time in regular-season play. He has played some of his best games against the Big Blue.
- Tennessee's Tyler Smith, a non-factor in the earlier game at Lexington, is on a roll heading into today's rematch. He is averaging 11 points and 13.5 rebounds per game over his last four outings.
- Since losing the backboard battle 36-27 in the earlier meeting at Lexington, the Vols have outrebounded 10 opponents in a row by an average of 6.4 per game.
- Tennessee (25-3 overall) needs a win to match the program record for victories in a season.
- The Vols (11-2 in SEC play) can clinch a share of the East title with a win. A victory would give them a 12-2 league mark and a two-game lead over Kentucky (which would drop to 10-4 by losing today) with just two games remaining.