The time has finally come. Starting one hour from right now, your No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats will take on the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers, just the 11th top-five regular season matchup in SEC history.
Kentucky is coming off a brutal loss at the buzzer to No. 19 LSU. Tennessee hasn’t lost a game since November 23. Both teams are expected to compete for a national title during the NCAA Tournament.
Lexington is buzzing. ESPN College GameDay is in town. Rupp Arena is sold out. Fans have been waiting outside to get in since this morning.
This is what Kentucky basketball is all about. And if you ask Kentucky forward Keldon Johnson, this is exactly why he decided to come to UK in the first place.
“That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “We came to Kentucky to play big games and I think everybody’s prepared, everybody’s been in the gym working, learned from our last game and I think if we come and do what we do I think we’ll be fine.”
As for Kentucky forward EJ Montgomery, he knew this team was going to come in and fight no matter what happened on Tuesday night. With the loss, though, he knows they’ll have just have that much more intensity when the ball is tipped on the big stage tonight.
“I think we were going to come in motivated regardless. But, losing that game just has us with more fire to win the next one.”
For Johnson, he knows his team has turned the page on LSU and is completely focused on taking down the dreaded Volunteers this evening. Practice has shown as much.
“We had a great practice yesterday,” he said. “We all came in focused, a lot of energy, ready to play and you can just tell on everybody’s faces that everybody was still locked in and they’re ready for the game.”
After dominating on the defensive end of the floor for weeks, things have slipped a bit over the course of the last few games. Johnson said that the key to winning tonight is revamping their defensive efforts and locking in.
If they do that, he likes his team’s chances. If not, he knows things probably aren’t going to end well.
“We just start with defense,” he said. “That’s with any game we play, not just nationally televised games or any of the games we play. It starts with defense, on the defensive end. When we lock in and play on the defensive end, we’re a pretty good team. When we don’t do that so much, not many good things happen.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari knows what’s at stake here. He understands the magnitude of this matchup and how much he’ll learn about his team tonight, no matter what happens.
In his own words, this Tennessee team is physical, polished, well-coached, and possess a will to win that you don’t find with many teams.
“They’re good,” he said. “They’re not going to beat themselves. They’re physical. They fight for second and third opportunities to rebound. We’re struggling with rebound attempts right now. They are going three and four jumps at a ball. If you don’t block out they’re jumping over your back. … They’re good. They deserve to be the No. 1 team, and they deserve to have the winning streak they have.”
Calipari said if Kentucky wants a chance to win this game, they have to execute on both ends of the floor and fight on every possession. If not, this thing could get ugly fast.
“They’ve got a deep team, and their guard play, the way they shoot and the things that they do – they’re not winning with one guy or two guys, they’re winning because of how they’re playing. The biggest thing is, because they lead the country in assists – their assist-to-turnover ratio – they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re going to create great opportunities and they shoot the ball well. You better play a good game. That’s what I tell you. You better play good. Better not be any tentativeness. Just let it go and go play.”
We’ll find out here shortly what this team is made of.