College Basketball: Why Tennessee vs. Kentucky Is the Game to Watch This Week

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College Basketball: Why Tennessee vs. Kentucky Is the Game to Watch This Week
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After a tumultuous weekend in college basketball where the top two teams in country suffered their first loss, there is no break in the action with conference play heating up.

This week's game to watch is not between two ranked teams, but it involves two programs who desperately need a win after rough starts to SEC play. 

 

Tennessee (8-6, 0-2) at Kentucky (10-5, 1-1)

Tuesday, Jan. 15 7 p.m. ET on ESPN

Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Volunteers came into SEC play as a darkhorse title contender, but since the calendar changed over to 2013, they have gone 0-3 and sit near the bottom of the SEC standings.

The Volunteers started 2013 with a loss to in-state rivals Memphis before falling to Ole Miss and Alabama in conference play. 

Losing a third straight game to start SEC play would destroy any hopes that the Vols have of not just surprising people to win the conference, but to even clinch a NCAA Tournament berth. 

Kentucky is also facing dire straits in the SEC after a shocking home loss to Texas A&M on Saturday.

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If the Wildcats somehow find a way to lose their third home game of the season against the Vols on Tuesday, they could easily fall back into the pack of the SEC and not be heard from again.

With both teams facing a must-win scenario on Tuesday night, they will have to rely on their star players to get the job done.

For Tennessee, it needs junior guard Jordan McRae to continue his strong play.

Against Alabama on Saturday, McRae was the only Tennessee player to score in double digits. 

McRae has also scored over 20 points in his last three games, but he needs support from his teammates if they want to conquer Kentucky at Rupp Arena. 

That support could come in the form of sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes and junior guard Trae Golden, who both barely average over 11 points per game.

Stokes' role in the game will be crucial as he will be the player assigned with defending the young big men in the Kentucky lineup.

The freshmen trio of Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress must take advantage of the size advantage that they have over Stokes and Kenny Hall.

Noel has seen his fair share of struggles in his freshman season with the Wildcats, but he has improved his play since the Wildcats entered conference play.

The 6'10" forward scored 15 in the loss to A&M on Saturday and 13 in the Wildcats' win over Vanderbilt on Thursday. 

More important than his point total in those two games are his rebounding totals. Noel has had over 10 rebounds in two of his last three games.

If the combination of Noel and his fellow big men play well, it will help open the game up in the backcourt for Ryan Harrow and company. Harrow has developed into a lead in the backcourt by scoring over 10 points in each of his last six games.

However, the real star in the Wildcats backcourt this season has been freshman Archie Goodwin, who is averaging 15.7 points per game.

There is no doubt that Kentucky has more talent than Tennessee does, but the real question surrounding John Calipari's team is whether they can recover from a shock home loss. 

The answer to that question is, yes, the Wildcats should be too much for the Vols in the end and should move to 2-1 in the conference, while the Vols will sink further down the conference standings. 

Follow me on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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