Tennessee coach Rick Barnes appears more bullish about a struggling Kentucky team than the Wildcats’ fans are, with the two teams set to clash Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., in the first of two scheduled meetings this season.
The Wildcats (10-6, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) began the season ranked No. 4 in the country but are off to their worst start in league play since the 1986-87 campaign and have fallen out of the Top 25.
Many fans have expressed their frustrations with the team and coach John Calipari on social media. One fan even showed up at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night with a sign urging Calipari to “Please go to Texas,” referring to the Longhorns’ bench opening. And that was before the Wildcats went on to lose to South Carolina to have their home winning streak snapped at 28 games.
South Carolina was coming off an 85-42 beatdown against Tennessee and had dropped its first two league games.
Still, Barnes spoke with respect for the Wildcats when asked about the matchup.
“The fact is I’ve got so much respect for John,” Barnes said. “I’ve known him for a lifetime in this business, and I know he’ll have his team ready. I think our guys certainly know that.”
Barnes is 11-9 against Kentucky over his career, including a 10-7 record while at Tennessee, and he knows the ups-and-downs of the rivalry.
“I know a couple of years ago we went up and had a good win up there and they came in here and just owned us,” he said. “They just did what they wanted to do and had a huge win against us. I’ll say the same about John Calipari’s team. They’re going to get better.”
Barnes’ fifth-ranked Volunteers (14-2, 4-0) have won their last five games and are coming off a 77-68 win over Vanderbilt that kept them one of three unbeaten teams in SEC play. Alabama also is 4-0 and Texas A&M is 3-0 in the conference.
“This league, I don’t care what anybody has said, is as wide open as it’s been since I’ve been here,” Barnes said. “Some team can get on a roll and go, and it could be a number of teams.”
The Vols are whole again with veteran Josiah-Jordan James’ return after missing four games with a knee issue. Sophomore Zakai Ziegler has emerged as a playmaker with 27 assists in his last three games.
Kentucky, however, could be without two starters against the Vols. Jordan Toppin (10.9 points, 6.1 rebounds per game) is day-to-day with a shoulder problem and Cason Wallace (11.6, 3.5) had to leave the South Carolina game because of back spasms.
Calipari urged fans to “stick with” his team in its struggles.
“I still think this team could be good,” he said. “Got to have a full roster and then we got to go.”
He also is aware of what lies ahead.
“It’s a hard game up at Tennessee,” he said. “They’re really good. All right, let’s go. Let’s see where we are. You just keep marching.”
–Field Level Media