Tennessee-Kentucky, Part III: Battle for a #1 Seed?

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2019

LSU won the SEC regular season championship, but anyone who has followed college basketball this season knows the conference battle that matters on the national scene is the seesaw between Tennessee and Kentucky for what could be the fourth #1 seed. With the Tigers getting dispatched by Florida on Friday afternoon, the stage is now set for the third installment of this season’s battle between the two hated rivals. Sure, it won’t get the fanfare and doesn’t have the star power of North Carolina vs. Duke, but when the Volunteers and Wildcats face off on Saturday afternoon, the implications may be just as great. Kentucky came into the weekend projected as one of the four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament by essentially everyone; likewise, Tennessee is viewed as a #2 seed in nearly every relevant bracketology. If the Volunteers beat the Wildcats for the second time this season, it stands to reason that they will instead have a claim on a top seed going into Selection Sunday.

A #1 seed appears to be up for grabs when Tennessee and Kentucky face off for a third time on Saturday (Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)

On Friday evening, both teams handled their business with relative ease. Kentucky, behind a swarming defense that forced Alabama into just 30 percent shooting, dispatched the Crimson Tide, 73-55. Tennessee faced a tougher challenge from a game Mississippi State team that is solidly within the field of 68, before showing the offensive efficiency they are known for on their way to an 83-76 win.

The first two match-ups between these two teams were mirror images of each other. Kentucky dismantled Tennessee in mid-February, handing the Volunteers their only double-figure loss of the season, 86-69. Two weeks later, Tennessee raced out to a 19-point win over the Wildcats in Knoxville. While Kentucky’s strength of schedule numbers are a bit stronger than those of Tennessee, the teams’ resumes are similar enough that a win in the rubber match should be enough to claim a #1 seed regardless of what may happen in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes hinted after the game that the winner would indeed earn that top slot. “The league deserves a #1 seed. I’ll be disappointed if someone in our league doesn’t end up on that one line.”

Saturday afternoon’s semifinal game has a chance to be special. While a case can be made for either team to win, one difference will be the presence of graduate transfer Reid Travis for Kentucky. The burly forward returned from a five-game absence to score eight points and grab seven boards in 23 minutes. His return should make a huge difference for the Wildcats going forward, as he opens things up for P.J. Washington inside.

The Wildcats have dominated the SEC Tournament for decades, while Tennessee’s success in this event has been very limited. But no program has beaten Kentucky more often over the course of history than Tennessee, and Saturday offers the Volunteers a chance to exorcise numerous demons while also possibly sewing up the first #1 seed the program has ever earned.

David Changas (164 Posts)


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