KNOXVILLE - Tennessee is taking its veteran men's basketball team into the most daunting atmosphere in the Southeastern Conference.
Most trips to Kentucky's Rupp Arena have gone poorly for the Volunteers, but at least this team heads north up Interstate 75 knowing what to expect.
Understanding what it takes to knock off the Wildcats, though, is another story.
"I wouldn't say it's an understanding, because we haven't won yet," Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said Friday afternoon as the Vols loaded onto the bus for Lexington, "but I think we know the atmosphere, we know that they have a very big arena and that Kentucky fans are very passionate about their team.
"But we also just won on the road, so that's a big momentum boost going into this game."
The Vols cleared the hurdle of achieving their first road win of the season, which didn't happen until February the past two seasons, by taking out LSU last week, but winning at Rupp is a mountain compared to that obstacle. Tennessee has won just four times in the 23,500-seat arena that opened in 1976.
Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld and Reggie Johnson combined to score 56 points for the Vols in a 71-67 upset of second-ranked Kentucky in 1977, and Johnson scored 20 points in Tennessee's win in Lexington in 1979. The unranked Vols also upset the defending champion Wildcats in 1999.
Tennessee's last win at Rupp came in 2006, when Kentucky native Chris Lofton erupted for 31 points in a 75-67 victory.
"It's a tough place to play," Vols guard Josh Richardson said, "but I feel like we're prepared to go up there and try to get this win."
The Vols' previous two visits to Kentucky under coach Cuonzo Martin ended in double-digit losses, including a 69-44 rout two years ago.
"I think for us, we have a chance to beat any team we play," Martin said. "It's not a case of, 'This team is an exception, a team you can't beat.' We feel like we can beat anybody. The key for us is to play the way we're capable of playing on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes."
Much like his most successful Kentucky teams, Wildcats coach John Calipari again has a freshman-laden team loaded with talented players who were prized recruits and are projected future NBA draft lottery picks.
"They like to get the ball out in transition," Richardson said. "They're great at getting up and down the floor. They beat teams down the floor a lot, so we'll just have to match their intensity."
Julius Randle, the nation's top-ranked recruit last year according to Rivals.com, is the biggest name among Kentucky's freshmen. The 6-foot-9 power forward is averaging nearly 17 points and more than 11 rebounds per game.
Freshman swingman James Young led Kentucky in scoring in two of its first three SEC games, scoring 23 points against Mississippi State and 26 in the overtime loss at Arkansas on Tuesday.
"It has every making of a big game," Tennessee's leading scorer Jordan McRae after the Vols beat Auburn on Wednesday. "Those are the games everybody wants to be a part of. I'm expecting them to come out with a lot of energy."
Kentucky lost Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in last summer's NBA draft, to a season-ending knee injury last year before its last meeting with Tennessee, and the Vols crushed the NIT-bound Wildcats 88-58 in the program's largest margin of victory ever against its border rivals.
Martin said the talent level between the Kentucky team with Noel, which beat Tennessee by 10 in Rupp, and this edition is similar, with 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein filling Noel's role as a shot-blocking presence.
The difference, Tennessee's coach said, is Randle.
"Julius Randle's a guy that really scores the ball and puts pressure on the defense the way he rebounds and attacks the rim," Martin said. "I think that's the difference at that 4 position for those guys. Now you bring [Alex] Poythress off the bench, who's probably one of the better offensive rebounders in our league. Talent is talent."
And experience is experience, and the Vols take that with them to Rupp.
"I think that part helps, because again you're playing against a talented team in a tremendous atmosphere," Martin said. "When you have the experience to go into an environment like that where the guys have the composure to compete and win a basketball game is the most important thing and not get consumed by the stage."
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