When Tennessee visits Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, a lot will be on the line for both teams. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin is looking for his first win over Kentucky in his second year on the job. The Vols are also looking for their first SEC win this year after dropping their first two conference games to Ole Miss and Alabama. Including a loss to Memphis to end their non-conference schedule, the Vols have dropped three straight and enter Tuesday night’s game with an 8-6 record. While Kentucky may be sitting squarely on the bubble, Tennessee isn’t even on the bubble.
In the short term, both teams need a win. Both are currently struggling and trying to get back on the right path while the SEC is still wide open for anyone’s taking. In the long term, a win for Tennessee would do much more good for their program than it could for Kentucky. Cuonzo Martin is trying to build something at Tennessee. He is trying to re-establish the excitement around the program that was there under Bruce Pearl before a barbecue went terribly wrong. Calipari, even though his young team is struggling to find its way this season, is coming off a National Championship and already has what is believed to be his best class ever signed for next season. So no, the sky is not falling in Lexington. Kentucky’s long-term status at or near the top of the mountain of college basketball is not going to be threatened if this team falls short of Calipari’s first three teams.
When every team enters Rupp Arena this year or hosts the Cats, it is still their biggest game of the season. Every road loss outside of maybe Gainesville will be followed by students rushing the court. Any other loss given to the Cats in Rupp Arena will be the highlight of anyone’s season, and that includes ranked Florida and Missouri. All of this holds true for Tuesday night’s tilt with Tennessee and it will continue to be true every game for the rest of the season, whether UK is ranked or not.
Kentucky really needs a win Tuesday night, but Tennessee still needs it more. Cuonzo Martin needs it more. The Tennessee program needs it more. Their future needs it more. All of this could be repeated and still be true for most of Kentucky’s remaining opponents, so buckle up. SEC play is going to be a wild ride.