- Associated Press - Friday, January 5, 2018

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee will try to extend an improbable streak Saturday when the Volunteers attempt to beat Kentucky at home for a third straight season.

Only this time, they’re competing on more equal footing.

Each of the last two years, an unranked Tennessee team has beaten a visiting Kentucky squad that was in the Top 25. This season, Tennessee (9-4, 0-2 SEC) is ranked 23rd and Kentucky 17th as they prepare to meet again in front of a sellout crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“They have a good crowd (and) the atmosphere is strong, but they also have a really good team,” Kentucky sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “You’re battling against a good team there. You’ve got to be able to compete and fight there. Every single rebound, every loose ball’s going to matter.”

Kentucky (12-2, 2-0) has learned that the hard way in its last two trips to Knoxville.

Tennessee rallied from 21 points down to beat a 20th-ranked Kentucky team 84-77 at Thompson-Boling Arena in 2016 and won 82-80 when a fourth-ranked Kentucky team visited Knoxville last season .

Tennessee hasn’t had nearly as much success at Rupp Arena, where Kentucky has won its last 10 meetings with the Vols by an average margin of 14.5 points. The Wildcats own a commanding 153-69 lead in the series, though no team can match Tennessee’s 69 victories over Kentucky.

“We’ve had two good wins against them, but on the other hand, we turn around and go up there and we haven’t even given them a game a Rupp Arena,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I can’t explain it. I wish I could.”

Both teams are dealing with flu bugs as they head into this game.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said guard Hamidou Diallo and forwards Sacha Killeya-Jones and Nick Richards were dealing with the flu Wednesday in a 74-71 victory at LSU . Barnes said Jordan Bone also has the flu and that it limited the point guard’s effectiveness Tuesday in a 94-84 home loss to Auburn .

Although Tennessee remains in the Top 25 for now, the Vols could badly use a victory after blowing double-digit leads in each of their first two conference games. Kentucky is in much better shape after beating Georgia and LSU in its first two SEC games.

Tennessee led for over 38 minutes in a 95-93 overtime loss at Arkansas and squandered an early 14-point advantage against Auburn. The Vols have been ahead by at least nine points in each of their four losses.

“They could be 13-0 right now,” Calipari said.

Barnes said after the Auburn game that he had an immature team that played too casually and got outworked. Tennessee was outrebounded 46-38 in the Auburn game.

The improved defense that helped Tennessee get to the Top 25 has tailed off significantly. The Vols have allowed 94.5 points per game in SEC competition after yielding 65.8 points per game in nonconference play.

“I think we’ve gotten away from what got us to where we were defensively,” Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander said. “I think we definitely put more work in (Thursday) and recently to try and get back to that. That needs to be our focal point again.”

Tennessee needs its defense in peak form to win Saturday.

A Kentucky program that typically relies on newcomers has even less experience than usual this season, but its all-freshman starting lineup has shown plenty of resilience.

Kentucky has trailed at the half six times this year but has rallied to win four of those games. The Wildcats have come from behind in the second half to win each of their first two SEC matchups.

“This is what it’s about,” Calipari said. “It’s going to be sold out. They’re desperate. They’ve got to have it. We’ve got to have it. Let’s see what happens.”


AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.


More AP College Basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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