Five pre-game notes for rubber match between Cats and Vols


Kentucky Wildcats guard Davion Mintz (10) loses control of the ball during the UK vs. Vanderbilt SEC Tournament quarterfinals mens basketball game on Friday, March 11, 2022, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. UK won 77-71. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

TAMPA, Fla.—It’s semifinal time at the 2022 SEC Tournament. 

What better way to punch your ticket to the championship game than a victory over a bitter rival? That’s the task at hand for both Kentucky and Tennessee. 

The Wildcats and Volunteers are set to throw down for the third time this season, this time inside Amalie Arena. 

Kentucky pounded UT in Lexington on Jan. 15, drubbing the Vols 107-79. Tennessee then returned the favor exactly one month later, rolling past the Cats 76-63 in Knoxville. 

The third and likely final matchup between the two is set for approximately 3 p.m. EST, with a chance to play for a trophy on Sunday on the line. 

Here are five factors that could dictate the outcome of Saturday’s rubber match.

Shot selection and shooting percentage

Crazy, right? 

When the Wildcats shot 67.9 percent from the floor, they won by 28 points. 

Shooting 34.3 percent in Knoxville, however? Yeah, a 13-point loss. 

Tennessee’s numbers dipped at home also, but it still landed at a 44-percent clip. Back in Lexington, it still made over half of its attempts, it just wasn’t enough to compete with an on fire UK offense. 

Kentucky has to find some sort of healthy middle between the two performances. As nice as it would be to make almost 70 percent of your looks, it just isn’t going to happen every time. 

The Volunteers neutralized any offense that UK mustered in Knoxville. Whether that be credited to Rick Barnes’ coaching adjustments, or the raucous Rocky Top environment, Kentucky got cracked. 

BBN will have UK’s backs in Tampa, but we’ll see if either team can exceed offensive expectations on a “neutral” court. 

Washington and Wheeler

The tale of two games was especially true for TyTy Washington Jr and Sahvir Wheeler. 

Both guards led the charge in the game one win. Washington dropped 28 points, five assists and three steals, while Wheeler added 21 points of his own, to go along with eight dimes and a pair of steals. 

Down in Knoxville, Washington left the game with what was thought to possibly be a serious lower-leg injury. 

He acquired just four points in 13 minutes. Wheeler wasn’t much better, scoring eight points while committing four fouls and three turnovers. 

Tennessee guards Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler are going to get their money’s worth when they step on the court, it’s up to Kentucky’s backcourt battery to do the same.

Friday night against Vanderbilt was a great start, as Washington’s 25 points and Wheeler’s 11 assists helped carry the Cats past the Commodores, 77-71. 

All or nothing from John Fulkerson

John Fulkerson hasn’t had his best season in a Tennessee uniform this year, to say the least. 

The senior is averaging 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, nestling into a bench role. 

He, like Washington and Wheeler, found two fates in the pair of clashes this season. 

Starting for the Vols in game one, Fulkerson scored a whopping zero points in 20 minutes. He committed three turnovers in that time, forcing Barnes to yank him for a majority of the second half. 

Back at home, he shined off the bench, adding 14 points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes.

He is a vital part of Tennessee being able to go deep in March. When he’s on, he is capable of taking it to the best of them. When he’s off his game, it could be lunch time for Oscar Tshiebwe. 

Tennessee turnovers 

The Vols committed 20 turnovers in the loss in Lexington. it doesn’t help when the opposing team can’t miss, but UT was sloppy with the ball. 

Game two? You guessed it…just eight TO’s and a win. 

Kentucky, who allowed 21 points off turnovers to Vandy, turned it over 12 and 14 times in the two games against Tennessee. 

It isn’t rocket science, but taking care of the basketball goes quite a long way. BBN is going to do its best to force a few extra possessions for the Cats, but it’s up to who can hold on to the rock a little extra on Saturday. 

Get it to Oscar

We’ve become accustomed to Oscar Tshiebwe grabbing 15 points and 15 rebounds a game. Shame on us. 

The big man hasn’t hit that mark against Tennessee this season. 

Game one saw a rarity in Tshiebwe not hitting a double-double, as he scored just nine points to go along with 12 boards. Luckily, the Cats didn’t need it that day. 

In game two, Tshiebwe was one of the lone bright spots, leading the Cats in points and rebounds with 13 and 15. 

Kentucky may not need a super-human performance on Saturday, but John Calipari sure wouldn’t mind it. 

Fulkerson and Uros Plavsic won’t be able to handle the load that Tshiebwe carries on both ends of the floor. If Kentucky can get it down low on a consistent basis and let the guy go to work, it’ll likely work out in favor of the Cats.