The Tennessee Volunteers have been here before. In 1979, the first year of the renewal of the SEC Tournament since 1952, the Volunteers faced a Kentucky squad they had beaten twice in the regular season. UT won the third match as well, 75-69 in overtime, for their first SEC Tournament title since 1943. It’s also their last SEC Tournament title to date.

Since then, Kentucky has won 18 SEC Tournament titles. Even Wildcat coach John Calipari, who has done little to hide his disdain for the Tournament during his time in Lexington, is 21-3 in SEC Tournament play. The Wildcats have met the Vols three times in SEC Tournament play since that 1979 games — and they won the three games by a combined 104 points.

But lest Kentucky get overconfident on the eve of today’s SEC title match, they’d be wise to remember that this same Tennessee team enters the game not only as a higher seed, but having swept the Wildcats in the regular season.

Kentucky is trying to win its fourth consecutive SEC Tournament.
Tennessee is trying to win its first since 1979.

Kentucky’s 76-65 loss at Knoxville on Jan. 6 came in a game that UK led by eight points at the half, only to watch UT pull away late. Even more frustrating for UK was a Feb. 6 home loss to the Vols, 61-59. The game marked the Vols’ first victory over Kentucky in Lexington since 2006. It also marked Kentucky’s season low in points scored.

One key for Kentucky to claim SEC Tournament title number 31 later today is a good game from Kevin Knox. Tennessee has hounded the co-SEC Freshman of the Year, pushing Knox out on the perimeter and often denying him the ball there. Knox has just 16 points on 4-for-20 shooting in the two matchups, a far cry from his 15.5 points per game and 44 percent shooting for the season.

Another key is the backboard. Kentucky has been out-rebounded eight times this season — including each of the past two games. Two of the other times happened to be the UT losses — 37-30 in Knoxville and 32-30 in Lexington.

With rebounding ace Jarred Vanderbilt likely sidelined for a third consecutive game due to his minor leg injury, Kentucky will face an uphill climb to avoid losing another rebounding battle.

Finally, Kentucky will need to have some answer for UT’s star duo of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Both have fared well against the Wildcats this season, with Schofield managing 32 points and 15 rebounds and Williams totaling 28 points and 11 boards.

Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee, meanwhile, will look to exploit their experience and execution. In both previous games this season, UT made more 3-pointers than Kentucky. With UK showing marksman skills in the second half against Alabama, the Vols will need to head off a similar hot shooting performance. The Vols might want to find Wenyen Gabriel, who was 7-for-7 from 3-point distance in UK’s semifinal win over Alabama. Gabriel was also 4-for-5 against UT from long distance this season.

Kentucky is the only program to win four consecutive SEC Tournaments. The Cats last did it in 1992-93-94-95. They have a chance to do it again today.

The Vols will also want to do a better job on guard Quade Green. The hot-and-cold freshman has shot the ball well in both games against UT, scoring 29 points in the two meetings. Green has just two points to show for the SEC Tournament so far, and if he torches Tennessee again, given the other offensive options that are clicking for the Wildcats, it could become a long afternoon for the Vols.

Finally, UT needs to block out its negative history.

As fans of baseball’s Chicago Cubs can attest, the fact that the Vols have gone 39 years without an SEC title will matter only so long as the drought continues. Rick Barnes has done a phenomenal job coaching an undersized and not especially talented squad to what has already been a memorable season in Knoxville. The Vols were selected 13th in the SEC by the local media in their preseason picks. They have greatly eclipsed any expectations, and if they find themselves looking at what historically is a David vs. Goliath meeting, they’ll do well to remember that this particular David took Goliath down twice in the regular season and is a higher seed for a reason.

Later today, either the Vols will ignore Daylight Savings Time in favor of turning the clock back to 1979, or the Wildcats will make the SEC Tournament Final another chapter in their Groundhog Day-like cycle of dominance. There’s reason for optimism—and for concern — on both sides.