While Tennessee is at low ebb in its football rivalry with Alabama, having lost all 14 meetings during the Nick Saban era with the Crimson Tide, it's a different story for the Volunteers against the longtime king of the Southeastern Conference court.
When the 19th-ranked Vols (15-5, 8-5 SEC) welcome Kentucky (7-13, 6-7) to Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday (1 p.m. on CBS), they will be seeking a seventh victory over the Wildcats in 10 series meetings. Tennessee sixth-year coach Rick Barnes has a three-game edge in 13 head-to-head matchups with Kentucky counterpart John Calipari, who is having his worst winter in Lexington but still has six SEC regular-season championships, four trips to the NCAA tournament's Final Four and the 2012 national title since arriving in 2009.
Barnes improved to 8-5 at Calipari's expense with the 82-71 triumph on Feb. 6, which marked the third win for the Vols at Rupp Arena in their past four trips. This is Tennessee's most successful stretch against Kentucky since the Vols went 9-2 from February 1975 to February 1980, with that run highlighted by Tennessee's 75-69 overtime victory in the 1979 SEC tournament championship game in Birmingham, Alabama.
"It's interesting, because even when Tennessee was rebuilding in the Kevin Punter years, they still beat Kentucky," SEC Network analyst and former Vols guard Dane Bradshaw said Friday. "The only thing I can compare it to somewhat is when we played Billy Donovan at Florida. Even under Buzz Peterson we did well against them, and then of course we did well under Bruce Pearl.
"As time went on, that balanced out a little more, but sometimes programs just have one program's number more than others."
Bradshaw then jokingly added, "Maybe Barnes being so liked by Cal helps take some of the competitive edge off Kentucky."
The Vols have defeated Kentucky at least once for six consecutive seasons, becoming the first program to turn that trick since 1985.
Tennessee's 9-2 run more than a generation ago included five straight wins under legendary coach Ray Mears and four consecutive triumphs to begin the Don DeVoe era. Kentucky's two victories in that stretch occurred during the 1977-78 season, when the Wildcats won the national championship under Joe B. Hall and the Vols were under acting coach Cliff Wettig after Mears stepped down due to health reasons.
Mears went 15-15 against Kentucky, while DeVoe was also competitive with an 11-12 mark, but some of Tennessee's more successful coaches since haven't fared as well against the Wildcats. Jerry Green and Pearl combined to lead Tennessee for 10 seasons and took the Vols to 10 NCAA tournaments, but Green was 3-5 against Kentucky and Pearl just 4-9.
Kentucky holds a commanding 156-75 advantage overall in the series, having posted a 32-1 mark from February 1945 to February 1960.
In this season's first meeting, the Vols erased a 10-point deficit with 12 minutes remaining, as five-star freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combined to score 50 points. That setback for Kentucky was part of a four-game skid, but the Wildcats have won their past two games over Auburn and Vanderbilt and can boast of double-digit whippings of Florida and LSU last month.
"There may not be a team in the country that has lost more single-possession games," Vols assistant coach Kim English said of the Wildcats, "and I'm not sure there is a team that has played as many single-possession games as those guys. Winning and losing can be the bounce of a ball or the blow of a whistle. The margin of winning and losing is so small, and they've had so many games like that.
"As a coach who knows those guys from the recruiting process, you know the ability Davion Mintz, Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson, Keon Brooks and all those really, really talented players have. They're a much better basketball team than their record might suggest."
Back to Nashville
Tennessee's postponed game last month at Vanderbilt will be made up Wednesday night. The Vols and Commodores have a 9 p.m. tip on the SEC Network.
The NCAA announced Friday that its 68-team men's basketball tournament next month will allow up to 25% capacity with social distancing guidelines in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire tournament this year is being staged in Indiana, with most of the contests in the Indianapolis area.
Tennessee is a No. 4 seed, according to ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection.