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Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee forward John Fulkerson scored a career-high 27 points to lead the Volunteers to an 81-73 upset of No. 6 Kentucky last March inside Rupp Arena. The slumping Vols and Wildcats will collide again in Lexington on Saturday night.

Since the dawn of Southeastern Conference men's basketball in the 1932-33 season, there has never been a year in which both Kentucky and Tennessee finished outside the top five records in league play.

The Volunteers and Wildcats were picked 1-2 in this season's conference race, but they will collide Saturday (8 p.m. on ESPN) inside Rupp Arena residing in sixth and seventh. This absolutely qualifies as a stop-the-bleeding matchup, with the No. 11 Vols (12-4, 5-4) having lost three of their past four league games and Kentucky (5-11, 4-5) having lost five of six.

On Wednesday night, the Wildcats returned from a COVID-19-related pause in team activities only to fall 75-70 at No. 18 Missouri.

"Kentucky is Kentucky," Vols assistant coach Desmond Oliver said Thursday on a Zoom call. "Despite their record, they still probably have the most talented roster in the SEC. They're certainly one or two — I'm going to say them and Florida.

"No one is going in there thinking that because of their record that they're not a team that can go out there and blow you out."

The lone example of that for Kentucky against a quality team this season occurred Jan. 9, when the Wildcats improved to 3-0 in league play by shredding Florida 76-58 in Gainesville. That remains the outlier, however, as Kentucky has yet to develop a trustworthy go-to guy to close out games.

Kentucky has been outscored by a staggering 39 points in the final four minutes of contests this season, which includes Missouri's 7-5 advantage down the stretch Wednesday.

"It's been crucial for us the past few games," Kentucky senior guard Davion Mintz, the graduate transfer from Creighton, said Wednesday night. "We've been practicing and strategizing what we want to do, but every game is different. We've just got to figure it out and be better in the last four minutes, especially playing teams that are really good and can thrive in that time."

Said Wildcats coach John Calipari of the dilemma: "I think they all want to win, but I still think they want to win on their terms."

Tennessee is looking to regroup after going 12 minutes and 23 seconds without a basket in the second half of Tuesday night's surprising 52-50 loss at Ole Miss. The Vols led the Rebels by 11 points in each half but lacked a go-to option at crunch time as well.

"They started to put pressure on us, and we kind of panicked," Vols senior guard/forward Yves Pons said. "We did not find good shots, and we turned the ball over a lot of times. Too many times. We just were not aggressive enough."

The Vols will invade Rupp Arena for the first time since using a 29-9 second-half run to stun the Wildcats 81-73 on senior night last March. Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson has been struggling in recent weeks but netted a career-high 27 points during the triumph in Lexington, which resulted in Rick Barnes becoming the first Tennessee coach to prevail multiple times in Rupp.

Barnes will be seeking his third victory there in the last four years, which would give Tennessee its sixth overall win against Kentucky in the past nine meetings.

"I like the matchup," Oliver said. "It's more of a normal matchup for us in the sense that we're not playing against a small-ball team. Several teams we've played against this year end up playing four guards, so you're in a position where you either play your normal lineup with Fulky and Yves, or do you go small ball?

"Kentucky historically has always had two front-line guys that have great size, so I think it'll be a typical Tennessee-Kentucky slugfest with two big front lines going at it."

 

Odds and ends

Kentucky holds a 156-74 series advantage against Tennessee, including a 91-18 mark in Lexington. ... The Vols have prevailed six times in Rupp Arena: 1977, 1979, 1999, 2006, 2018 and 2020. ... Pons and Kentucky's Olivier Sarr grew up together in France and are close friends. ... Tennessee has been outscored 25-0 in fast-break points its past two games.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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