There are several valid reasons that Tennessee has beaten Kentucky just four times in 37 tries at Rupp Arena since that historic venue opened in 1976:
One: There are always 23,000 of America’s loudest and most animated fans in the stands. This energizes the Cats and intimidates their opponent.
Two: Even the best officials get swept up in the decibel level and give the Wildcats a friendly whistle.
Three: Kentucky often has better players on its bench than Tennessee has on the floor.
“It’s a tremendous venue,” said Vol coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team visits Rupp for a 12:05 Saturday tip-off. “But I think the biggest key is the talent level. It’s the team you’re playing against more than anything.”
He has a point. Kentucky’s projected starting lineup features five-star freshmen Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison, plus four-star sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. Tennessee will counter with one five-star (Jarnell Stokes), two four-stars (Jeronne Maymon, Jordan McRae) and a pair of two-stars (Antonio Barton, Josh Richardson).
For those keeping score at home, there are 24 stars in the Big Blue’s starting lineup, 17 in Tennessee’s.
The talent gap is even more dramatic if you include the benches. Kentucky’s top three reserves – five-star sophomore Alex Poythress, five-star freshman Dakari Johnson and five-star freshman Marcus Lee – account for 15 stars. Conversely, Tennessee’s top three reserves – three-star Darius Thompson, two-star Derek Reese and two-star D’Montre Edwards – combine for seven stars.
Bottom line: UK’s rotation consists of eight guys with a total of 39 stars when they signed. UT’s rotation consists of eight guys who combined for 24. Throw in the fact that the home-floor advantage at Rupp Arena is worth at least 10 points, and Kentucky appears likely to mop the floor with the Vols.
The great equalizer, however, is experience. The Vols have a bunch, whereas the Cats have virtually none. Tennessee’s starting five entered this season with 13 years of collegiate experience. Kentucky’s starting five entered this season with one (Cauley-Stein’s freshman year).
“We’re playing against a talented team in a tremendous atmosphere but we have the experience of going into an environment like that,” Martin said. “Guys having the composure to compete and win a basketball game is the most important thing and not get consumed by the stage.”
Stokes thinks Tennessee’s experience gives the Vols a good chance to overcome the Rupp Mystique and post a second SEC road win.
“We’ve got a veteran ball club, guys that are used to playing there,” Stokes said. “I think we play better (than previous years) on the road. We’re coming off a momentum boost at LSU – winning (68-50) on the road. If we play the way we did against LSU, we’ll be OK.”
Tennessee tends to win when Stokes plays well and lose when he does not. Based on historical precedent, that does not bode well for this game. Stokes went 2 for 9 from the floor and scored just 4 points at Rupp Arena as a freshman in 2012 and went 2 for 5 in scoring 5 points on his return visit as a sophomore in 2013. Still, he believes those experiences were valuable.
“It definitely means a lot to have played there,” he said. “I haven’t played particularly well at Rupp Arena but I’m older now and I know what to expect. I don’t get jitters and butterflies before games.”
For Tennessee to win the Vols must crash the boards and avoid mistakes. Kentucky leads the SEC in rebound margin (plus 15.7), so the Big Orange (second at plus 11.7) probably needs to break even on the backboards. More importantly, Tennessee must avoid the kind of turnover totals it registered in previous SEC games against LSU (16), Texas A&M (16) and Auburn (15).
“We’re just being careless,” McRae said. “When somebody passes the ball we’re not really (stepping out and) meeting the pass. It’s things that can be corrected. We’re taking shots away from ourselves.”
Richardson said the Vols must be careful without being tentative.
“We’ve just got to take care of the ball,” he said. “We can’t play timid, can’t play any different.”
Despite its mind-boggling assemblage of five-star talent, Kentucky stands just 12-4 overall and 2-1 in SEC play heading into Saturday’s game. Tennessee, 11-5 and 2-1, should not be intimidated.
“We feel like we have a chance to beat anybody we play,” Martin said. “It’s not a case of ‘This team is exceptional; we can’t beat them.’ We feel like we can beat anyone. The key for us is to play the way we’re capable of on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes.”
GAME NOTES: Tennessee leads the SEC in scoring defense (58.0 points per game) and Kentucky leads the league in scoring offense (80.3 ppg in conference games)…. Underclassmen are responsible for 98.9 percent of Kentucky’s scoring this year…. Tennessee and Kentucky will not meet in Knoxville this season, thanks to the SEC’s new schedule. The Vols and Cats played in Knoxville every season since 1922 except for 1943-44 (World War II) and 1952-53 (UK canceled its season due to NCAA violations)…. Tennessee’s only wins at Rupp Arena came in 1977 under Ray Mears, 1979 under Don DeVoe, 1999 under Jerry Green and 2006 under Bruce Pearl…. Tennessee’s all-time record in Lexington is 16-87…. Kentucky won last season’s meeting in Lexington 75-65 but Tennessee avenged that setback with its most lopsided win in series history (88-58) in the rematch at Knoxville…. Today’s game will be televised nationally by CBS.