Is Tennessee Taking Over Coach Cal and Kentucky's Throne as Kings of the SEC?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 14, 2019

Rick Barnes and Admiral Schofield
Rick Barnes and Admiral SchofieldWade Payne/Associated Press

When Kentucky hosts Tennessee in men's college basketball this weekend, a spot as a projected No. 1 seed for the 2019 NCAA tournament won't be the only thing on the line.

The future of this rivalry as we know it could hang in the balance.

Kentucky is clearly the much better team as far as NCAA history is concerned. The Wildcats have won eight national championships while the Volunteers have yet to ever reach the Final Four. And the Wildcats have been the better team for most of the current decade. But in the four years before John Calipari became UK's head coach, Tennessee was consistently better than Kentucky.

Bruce Pearl led the Vols to the SEC's East Division title in 2005-06, 2007-08 and 2008-09 and finished ahead of the Wildcats each year. During that stretch, Tennessee earned a pair of No. 2 seeds, a No. 5 seed and a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, while Kentucky missed the dance in 2009 and didn't do better than a No. 8 seed in any of the prior three years.

Thus, we know from the not-so-distant past it's possible for Tennessee to be better than Kentucky.

But once Calipari arrived and Kentucky started signing top-notch classes on the regularwhile Tennessee went through three coaching changes in the span of five years, no less—things changed drastically.

After becoming the one-and-done Wildcats, Kentucky finished ahead of Tennessee in the conference standings in eight consecutive years, winning 39 more regular-season SEC games than the Volunteers from 2010-17.

In Rick Barnes' third year at the helm, though, Tennessee surprised everyone by earning a share of the SEC regular-season title last season, thanks in no small part to a season sweep of Kentucky. It wasn't the first time Tennessee was a thorn in Kentucky's side, either. The Wildcats are 105-30 over the past three-plus seasons, but they are 3-4 against the Volunteers since Barnes took over.

And if Tennessee is able to waltz into Rupp Arena on Saturday and leave with a W for the second straight year, it'll be time to start wondering if we are witnessing a changing of the guard in the SEC.

John Calipari
John CalipariMark Humphrey/Associated Press

As far as the Kentucky portion of that potential transition is concerned, there is no time like the present for an SEC team to make its move on the Wildcats.

With the G League set to offer up to $125,000 to high school players this summermore than triple the G League's 2018-19 salary of $35,000—it's possible the one-and-done model will be going the way of the dinosaur before long. If college basketball does end up losing a significant number of high school stars straight to the NBA, Kentucky isn't going to have the can't-miss talents coming in and immediately dominating like it does now, even if it continues to sign top-five classes every year.

That might be a couple of years away from having a major impact on Kentucky, but next year's class is shaping up to be Calipari's weakest with the Wildcats.

That's a relative term, of course. They're still getting two consensus top-10 players in Kahlil Whitney and Tyrese Maxey and should be a top-10 class just because of that duo. But with only a handful of key players still weighing their options and all of them currently expected to sign somewhere other than Kentucky, it's looking like Whitney and Maxey will be Kentucky's only top-100 signees for next year.

If potential first-round draft picks Keldon Johnson, Ashton Hagans and PJ Washington all go proplus Reid Travis graduating—Kentucky would be losing a lot more talent than it is adding. That isn't to say the Wildcats are going to flirt with a .500 overall record, but the window should be open for a strong SEC team or two to create some separation from Kentucky.

And if Grant Williams returns for his senior season, Tennessee is going to be one of the top preseason candidates to win the 2019-20 national championshipif not the singular favorite.

The Volunteers are losing Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander as seniors, but they are equipped to replace them. 2019 5-star combo guard Josiah James is the heir apparent to Schofield. 2018 4-star center D.J. Burns is redshirting this year and should be an immediate contributor in the frontcourt next season. And sophomore wing-forward Yves Pons still hasn't quite tapped into his immense potential and could be a major breakout guy in 2019-20.

Pair that trio with four key seniors in Williams, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, and Tennessee is going to be cooking with gas.

Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield
Grant Williams and Admiral SchofieldDonald Page/Getty Images

As many have noted over the past season-and-a-half, the incredible thing about Tennessee's resurgence is that it has done this without much of a recruiting foothold. Turner, Schofield and Alexander were all 3-star guys in 2015. Same goes for everyone in the 2016 class, where scarcely used Jalen Johnson was actually the highest-rated recruit at No. 147.

No one on this team was supposed to be a star, but Tennessee is winning both on and off the court because of guys like Williams and Schofield.

Barnes' 2019 class is rated 30th on the 247Sports composite, which would be Tennessee's highest class rank since 2010. If the Vols earn a No. 1 seed in the 2019 and 2020 tournaments, you can take it to the bank that they're only going to improve on the recruiting side of things. And heaven knows Barnes won more than his fair share of recruiting battles during his 17 years with Texas.

This might just be the beginning of Tennessee's climb to a college basketball powerhouse. And that makes this Saturday's game between Kentucky and Tennessee arguably the most important of the entire 2018-19 season.

It's a huge game from the perspective of this season alone, since the winner will assume the driver's seat for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But this game is huge in the full context of last year, this year, next year and beyond.

Tennessee tied for first place in last year's SEC standings, three games ahead of Kentucky. If the Volunteers win in Lexington this weekend, they would move three games ahead of the Wildcats with a chance to go at least four games up when they play again in Knoxville on March 2. And Tennessee is probably going to have a better outlook for next season than Kentucky, which could mean three consecutive SEC championships.

The Volunteers were a year ahead of schedule last season, and now they are on the verge of turning into something special. "Dynasty" is much too strong a word for a team that is 1-1 in the NCAA tournament over the past four years. But if Tennessee wins this road game against Kentucky, it could be some time before the Wildcats take the SEC throne again.

As far as a prediction for this game, I expect Kentucky to bounce back from the loss to LSU and get the win. The Wildcats' biggest weakness is three-point defense, and Tennessee is one of the least perimeter-oriented teams in the country. Meanwhile, Tennessee's biggest weakness is protecting the defensive glass, and Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams. Throw in the Rupp Arena factor, and the home team should have the edge.

But considering we've hit the annual portion of the season when wild comebacks and completely unexpected upsets happen on a daily basis, it wouldn't be a surprise if Tennessee wins this road game and takes the torch away from Kentucky.

         

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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