College basketball can be a lengthy, game-by-game grind with the constant objective of peaking in March.
Then a trip to Kentucky's Rupp Arena suddenly becomes the assignment, and the realization sets in that this task in that setting is a wee bit different.
"I think it is," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Friday on a Zoom call. "You have great respect for basketball programs that have been good through every decade starting back in the '40s. There are programs that have been successful for 70 or 80 years, and there's a reason for that, and it's because they're good year in and year out.
"Expectations for those programs are always extremely high. Prior to coming here, I didn't know that much about the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry. I grew up on the other side of the mountains (in Hickory, North Carolina), and everything was based off what was going on over there."
There have been stretches through the Southeastern Conference years in which the Volunteers haven't harbored high expectations when heading up I-75, but this isn't one of those times. When the No. 22 Vols (11-4, 2-2 SEC) and No. 18 Wildcats (13-3, 3-1) collide Saturday afternoon (1 on ESPN), Tennessee will be seeking a third consecutive win at Rupp and a fourth triumph in five seasons.
Tennessee had never prevailed in consecutive journeys to Lexington until last season's 82-71 victory, when the one-and-done tandem of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combined for 50 points.
"We've had some guys who have played well there, but the same guys who went up there a year ago came back here, and they came in here and beat us soundly in every way you can be beaten," said Barnes, who has guided the Vols to an 8-6 record against John Calipari's Wildcats. "I hope we play our best game tomorrow, but I hope it's not as good as the game we play after that.
"I can't put a 'why' on it. I just hope that we can do it again."
John Fulkerson and Yves Pons last season became the first Tennessee players ever to win three times at Kentucky. With Fulkerson having used the NCAA's extra year due to the coronavirus and returned as a sixth-year senior forward, he could stand alone in Tennessee annals, quite possibly forever.
"That would be really cool, but it doesn't really matter what happened with those other three times," Fulkerson said Friday. "We still have to go up there and execute our game plan and play the best we can."
Fulkerson arguably had his best career game in the 2020 venture to Lexington, when the 6-foot-9, 219-pounder from Kingsport poured in 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the floor and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line. The Vols trailed 51-34 three minutes into the second half but roared back for an 81-73 upset to spoil senior night festivities.
Kentucky had been 129-0 during the previous decade regardless of location when leading at halftime by double digits.
"I could never see the scoreboard in that game," Fulkerson said. "I never knew that we were down 17, and I never knew how many points I had. I never knew that we were coming back to make it close.
"Obviously we won and I played well, so maybe it was good that I couldn't see the scoreboard."
The challenge for Fulkerson and all of Tennessee's inside players will be Kentucky junior forward Oscar Tsheibwe. The 6-9, 255-pound transfer from West Virginia has been nothing short of sensational, averaging 17.0 points and leading the nation with an eye-popping 15.1 rebounds per contest.
"There is not enough you can say about Tsheibwe and what he's doing," Barnes said. "The last guy I heard who got 20 rebounds as many times as he has was (Providence center) Marvin Barnes way back in the early '70s. What he's doing is phenomenal."
Fulkerson had a 24-point, 10-rebound performance against Arizona on Dec. 22. He then tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Dec. 29 league opener at Alabama before struggling against Ole Miss and LSU.
When asked if he would routinely take Fulkerson's 10 points and seven rebounds from Tuesday's win over South Carolina, Barnes said, "Absolutely."
Limiting Tsheibwe's touches and boxing him out are obvious goals if Tennessee is to continue its recent Lexington success, but the Wildcats are much more than their rebounding force. Georgia transfer guard Sahvir Wheeler, who has averaged 9.6 points and 7.3 assists per game for Kentucky, is expected to return after missing the past two contests with a neck injury.
The Vols made history with last season's win at Rupp and could make even more Saturday, but Barnes is not using that as motivation - not with the most important half of the season still to play.
"We really are locked into trying to figure out who we are and what we need to do," Barnes said. "I want to win no matter who we're playing, and I've never tried to put an emphasis on one game over the other. In our league, arguably the most important games we play are against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, because those are our three common opponents.
"Those are six of our SEC games, and we've never tried to make one game over the other that much more important, and I've often told our team that I don't want to be a one-hit wonder. You don't want to get up to play a Kentucky and then think you can just cruise through other games."
Odds and ends
Despite three wins in its past four trips, Tennessee is 19-91 against Kentucky in Lexington. ... The Vols lead the SEC with 20.3 forced turnovers per game, but the Wildcats are tops in the league in fewest turnovers at 10.5. ... Tennessee is shooting an abysmal 57.1% from the free-throw line in its past three games. ... Fulkerson on his recent illness: "COVID is no joke. It definitely gets the best of me." ... The Vols are 9-0 this season when outrebounding the opposition. ... The 737 career wins by Barnes ranks second among current SEC coaches to Calipari's 754.