As if the past week of Tennessee basketball needed any more drama, the Vols will head to Lexington, Ky., Saturday for a noon contest with the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena.
Cuonzo Martin's squad will go up against another version of Wildcats head coach John Calipari's freshman showcase. Thought to be one of the best recruiting classes in college basketball history entering the season, Kentucky boasts four first-year phenoms who average more than 10 points per game.
However, the Wildcats' (12-4, 2-1 SEC) season has seen more bumps than expected. Three non-conference losses derailed an early top-five ranking, and they are coming off an overtime loss at Arkansas on Tuesday.
After Tennessee (11-5, 2-1) also faltered recently in a late heartbreaker to Texas A&M last Saturday, the Vols and Wildcats will be playing to avoid falling to .500 in conference play. A UT win would also be the second straight against Kentucky after a dominating, 88-58 Vol victory at home last season.
Vols guard Jordan McRae has caught a couple of Kentucky games, and said he sees the usual, high-octane product in Lexington — but not an unbeatable one.
"They're a good team," McRae said after Wednesday night's win over Auburn. "They're their usual Kentucky team. They are going to be tough to beat at home.
"But I think we can manage."
Saturday's game is doubly important for the Vols, who don't play Kentucky at home this season for the first time since 1952-53. The new SEC schedule omits divisions, which fluctuates the teams that play twice in a season.
The Vols lost the momentum of a then-four-game win streak in the Texas A&M loss, but regained some of that on Wednesday with a 78-67 win over a pesky Auburn team that made UT sweat in the final minutes.
Martin said he thought the mid-week win was crucial heading into what should be the most hostile environment the Vols will see all season.
"I think our guys will be back on the grind after this," Martin said. "You get (the Texas A&M loss) off your back and continue to push forward. League play — you're talking about 18 games. You learn from (the Auburn win) and get ready to rumble on Saturday."
Still caught up in the aftermath of the Auburn win, Martin said he hasn't laid any eyes on Kentucky tape — which is normal in college basketball. But he has an assistant coach who has been scouting them all season.
"I haven't watched film with a pen and a pad on them, because my focus is obviously Auburn," Martin said. "But I'll start that (Thursday) morning, start breaking down film and analyzing. One of our assistant coaches already scouts them, so he has a game plan, but for me, I have to watch these four or five pieces of film."
Saturday's game will air on CBS.