"It's fun. The adrenalin's pumping," Vol freshman Kenny Hall said, grinning at the thought of facing the Big Blue. "This is going to be a really good game. We've got a little chip on our shoulder from the last game. We believe we could've won that game, so we're going into this game feeling strong."
Jason Shay never coached in the South prior to joining the Vol staff five years ago, but he has come to appreciate just how heated the Big Blue-Big Orange series is.
"It's a rivalry game," he said. "It's close. Obviously, their fans are passionate about Kentucky basketball. For 24,000 people to show up for ESPN GameDay is pretty impressive. But we've built a tradition and a reputation here at Thompson-Boling Arena, and it's made that rivalry a little bit sweeter. To be a part of it is a lot of fun."
Tennessee gave Kentucky fits Feb. 13 in Lexington, leading 52-50 late only to watch the Big Blue rally for a 73-62 win. Buoyed by that showing, the 19th-ranked Vols are eager to get the second-ranked Wildcats inside Thompson-Boling Arena for Saturday's noon tipoff.
"I'm ready to rock, especially for the seniors," Hall said. "They've never been swept by Kentucky and we're trying to not let that happen this year. I feel like we let the seniors down by losing to Florida (which UT had beaten five times in a row before bowing 75-62 Tuesday at Gainesville).
"We feel like this is a chance to really pick it up for the seniors - not only to beat Kentucky but to take another No. 1 seed off the top," Hall added. "That would be really good for our seniors. We want them to finish strong."
The Vols already upset No. 1 Kansas at Thompson-Boling Arena, so knocking off No. 2 Kentucky would give them two wins over teams projected as No. 1 seeds for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. That would look awfully good on Tennessee's tournament resume'.
"Oh, yeah," Hall said with a grin. "Definitely."
Sophomore wing Cameron Tatum thinks so, too. He's even more excited than usual about facing the Cats, since beating them could bump Tennessee to a 3 or 4 seed for The Big Dance.
"It's a big opportunity for us," Tatum said. "After what happened at Florida, we really need this game to rebound. If we can put this one in the win column that would be a really good boost going forward into the Tournament.
"Beating another 1 seed would be huge for us. Every game we play right now is for seeding. We learned from last year that seeding is very important when you get to the NCAA Tournament. We've got to take care of business."
Beating Kentucky, though, represents a lot more than merely taking care of business. It's a pleasure.