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Sahvir Wheeler practiced Thursday and was expected to do so again Friday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. So, UK expects its starting point guard — and a player ranked third in assist average among Division I players (7.3 apg) — available to play Saturday against Tennessee.
As returns to center stage go, this figures to be far from an off-Broadway tuneup.
Besides a renewal of an entertaining border state rivalry, this Kentucky-Tennessee game features the chance of history being made.
A Tennessee victory would be the Vols’ third straight at Kentucky.
The last time a school won three straight games at Kentucky was almost 100 years ago. Coincidentally, Tennessee did it by winning two games at UK in 1920 and then making it three straight in 1923.
Georgetown College is the only other school to win at least three straight games at Kentucky. Georgetown won four straight at UK during the Teddy Roosevelt presidency: 1903, 1904, 1905 and 1906.
This historical note surprised Davion Mintz. It also made it sound as if it stirred his competitive juices.
“That’s definitely a motivating factor,” he said. “Like, three times is almost like domination. So, we’re definitely going to try to end that streak they’ve got going.
TyTy Washington, whose relief duty at point guard included a school record 17 assists against Georgia last weekend, agreed.
“It’s very motivating,” he said. “First off, it’s our home court. We want to defend that with pride.”
Calipari said he believed since so many of his players had not been on the losing end of the previous two Tennessee victories here, his team would be unaware of the history-making opportunity.
Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes suggested he would have preferred to keep it that way. He was unaware of this history and would have preferred to keep everyone — especially UK players — unaware.
“Are you trying to jinx us?” he playfully asked. “What are you trying to do?”
Calipari noted that the series had not been one-sided
Kentucky will carry a two-game winning streak at Tennessee into the Feb. 15 game in Knoxville.
“It’s going to be a war,” Calipari of Saturday’s game. “It’s not going to be won in the first five minutes unless they’re on absolute fire. It’ll be a 40-minute who-has-it-last kind of game.”
Thanks in part to a non-conference schedule that stats savant Ken Pomeroy rated Friday as the 312th toughest in Division I, Kentucky has mostly breezed to a 13-3 start. The 3-1 start in Southeastern Conference play includes victories against teams with the two lowest NCAA Evaluation Tool ratings — Georgia at 228 and Missouri at 203 — plus Vanderbilt (82).
As of Friday, Tennessee had a NET rating of No. 9.
If a first-round knockout is unlikely, then Kentucky may get the late-game possession-by-possession test Calipari has been saying his team needs to prepare for inevitable tests of nerves.
When asked where Kentucky stood in this preparation, Calipari referenced the victory at Vanderbilt this week. Leading 78-50 with about six minutes left, UK went scoreless the rest of the way. Vandy scored 16 straight points, which prompted Calipari to return starters to the court.
Calipari sarcastically said of his team’s late-game execution at Vanderbilt, “well, we’ve really been working on it, so it showed that last game. . . . The job I’ve done to teach them the last four minutes has been really good.”
Seemingly turning more serious, the UK coach added, “Whatever I’ve been doing, I better try something different.”
To explain the final minutes of Vanderbilt, Mintz offered an oxymoronic-sounding combination of caution and confidence.
“Playing not to lose,” he said before adding, “we were kind of in a situation, I guess, it felt like we were already winning that game. It was won. Let’s wrap up. Let’s just get out of here.”
Washington said Kentucky needed to play with greater patience in the final minutes of a close game.
“Knowing the time and situation of the game,” he said. “In the final minutes at Vanderbilt, we were still playing as if the game had just started. We were just flying up, rushing, trying to get quick shots.”
Instead, Kentucky should “settle down and start executing our stuff,” he said.
The Tennessee game begins a six-week span when Kentucky plays an opponent currently ranked on five of the next six Saturdays. After No. 22 Tennessee, UK will play at No. 4 Auburn and at No. 9 Kansas the next two Saturdays. Later, there’s home-and-home games with No. 24 Alabama on Feb. 5 and 19.
“I’m worried about one game,” Calipari said. “Saturday at 1 (p.m.). How do you play in this game? That’s the only thing I’m focused on. I’ll figure out after 3 o’clock who is the next game.”
No. 22 Tennessee at No. 18 Kentucky
When: 1 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 13-3 (3-1 SEC), Tennessee 11-4 (2-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 157-75.
Last meeting: Kentucky won 70-55 on Feb. 20, 2021, at Knoxville, Tenn.