No. 1 Tennessee's gauntlet begins Saturday at No. 5 Kentucky
Tennessee is No. 1 and on a school-record 19-game winning streak.
It only gets harder from here.
The Volunteers (23-1, 11-0 SEC) will visit No. 5 Kentucky (20-4, 9-2) in Lexington on Saturday, the first of two meetings against the Wildcats in a two-week span. In the middle of that, on Feb. 23 on the road, will be the regular-season's only game against No. 19 LSU.
"I don't really watch other teams that much, but I will say that every time I have seen Kentucky, the biggest thing I think is that Coach Cal (John Calipari) has done a great job this year with just the camaraderie," said Tennessee senior Admiral Schofield.
"He's always had talent, and they are a very talented team this year. PJ Washington is playing great basketball right now, SEC Player of the Year-type level. To see his leadership on the team and how they interact with each other ... in the past, they really haven't had camaraderie like that, except for on certain teams like the national championship teams when they had Devin Booker and those guys."
Tennessee has someone playing at an SEC Player of the Year level, too. Junior forward Grant Williams, who won the award last season, is averaging 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds, while shooting 57.9 percent from the field, all well above his marks from last year.
He scored only eight in an 85-73 win over South Carolina on Wednesday night, but the Vols showed off the depth and versatility that make them the top scoring team in the SEC at 85.4 points per game. Five of Williams' teammates scored in double figures against the Gamecocks, led by Schofield with 21.
Tennessee won both regular-season meetings against Kentucky last season, but the Wildcats gained revenge with a victory in the title game of the SEC tournament. Heightening the hype and intrigue for Saturday's SEC showdown between potential No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tourney is how Kentucky's last game ended.
The Wildcats fell 73-71 at home to LSU on Tuesday on a controversial tip-in by Kavell Bigby-Williams, ending UK's 10-game winning streak.
"This game and this week is the toughest week of the season for us," Calipari said after the game. "These are the two games that are the tough ones."
It was a painful loss that Kentucky hopes to convert to motivation.
"I know it will," Washington told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We felt like we should have won that game, and we didn't make the plays to win that game at the end of the game. We're looking to bounce back Saturday."
Washington, a sophomore forward, is averaging team-highs in scoring (14.4) and rebounding (8.1). Freshman guard Keldon Johnson is scoring 14.0 points per game.
Washington has scored 20-plus points in six of the past seven games. He scored a total of 22 in the three games against the Volunteers last season.
"I think we all realize that every game is important this time of the year," said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. "Regardless of the rankings, I think we are all concerned about seeing how well we can play. Going back to their last game, we are going to have to put a rule in to help referees at the end of the game."
--Field Level Media
Updated February 14, 2019