Mike Strange: Vols-Cats: It takes two for the rivalry tango

Mike Strange
Kentucky's Alex Poythress (22) shoots between Tennessee's Josh Richardson, left, and Yemi Makanjuola during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Kentucky's Alex Poythress (22) shoots between Tennessee's Josh Richardson, left, and Yemi Makanjuola during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Jarnell Stokes talks about Nerlans Noel

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Rivalry Week is a made-for-TV basketball promotion, but in Tennessee's case the sneaker fits.

On Wednesday, the Vols throttled Vanderbilt, the program they have beaten more times (113) than any other.

Saturday (TV: WVLT, 1 p.m.), they take on the bully that has beaten Tennessee more times (149) than anyone else has.

It's that day of the year when Thompson-Boling Arena's primary orange hue is accented by Kentucky blue.

"The history and tradition speaks for itself,'' said UT coach Cuonzo Martin, who will break out his orange blazer for the second time this week.

"With Kentucky,'' said senior Skylar McBee, "there's always a little extra juice in it.''

That's the way the best rivalries work.

Tennessee's 66 wins over the Wildcats are by far the most of any opponent. Vanderbilt is a distant second at 45.

However, not so many of those Tennessee wins are of recent vintage.

Kentucky has beaten the Vols six consecutive times and nine of the past 10. Over the past decade, the rivalry tilts heavily to the Big Blue, 17-4.

To keep a rivalry healthy, there should be genuine give-and-take.

I wouldn't say the UT-UK basketball rivalry has devalued to the level of the football series between the two neighbors — the Vols have won 27 of the past 28 — but it's time for Tennessee's hoopsters to get busy.

Seniors McBee and Kenny Hall are the only current Vols who have tasted victory against UK, 74-65 against John Calipari's first Kentucky team on Feb. 27, 2010.

"My freshman year,'' McBee said. "When they were pretty good.''

Real good. Kentucky was 27-1 and ranked No. 2. Since then, four of UK's victories have been by double digits. Only one game was decided in the final minute.

"You can see through social media people are already talking about the game,'' said junior Jordan McRae. "I know the gym's gonna be jam-packed. A lot of people are going to want to see us win that game.''

How many Kentucky fans help to jam pack it remains to be seen. For their part, UT fans don't want to get to the point where losing to Kentucky is a foregone conclusion.

Martin is 0-3 against Kentucky. Two of those losses were to the eventual national champions last season. The third was 75-65 in Lexington last month.

This isn't a vintage Kentucky team, and certainly not without injured freshman phenom Nerlens Noel.

But as UT's Jarnell Stokes pointed out Friday, the Wildcats still "have a lot of McDonalds.''

He meant All-Americans, not quarter-pounders.

Martin's predecessor, Bruce Pearl, offered a telling assessment after a loss to Kentucky in 2011 in what turned out to be his final game in Knoxville.

"I do feel (Kentucky) is a benchmark I should be judged on,'' Pearl said. "Obviously, I've not done my job in the rivalry with Kentucky.''

Pearl left with a 4-9 slate against the Wildcats. John Bender is the only Tennessee coach with a winning record against UK. That was in the peach-basket days before Adolph Rupp arrived in Lexington in 1931.

After years of lopsided Kentucky results, Ray Mears battled to a 15-15 standoff from 1963-77, signalling that there would be a rivalry after all. Then Don DeVoe went 11-12 through 1989.

Since then, the Tennessee wins have become more scattered.

"I've never beaten them,'' said junior guard Trae Golden. "It's something we definitely need to win.''

He's right. That's the way a rivalry works. And this rivalry needs some work.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 9

hodocka writes:

Its not a rivalry when 1 team wins all the time. This game is big for us, not so much for Ky

emailnodata (Inactive) writes:

Ah, yeah, the Devoe years...akin to firing Fulmer, another huge dumb-a## move.

"Retiring" Devoe and, oh, did exactly what until Bruce? Not a damn thing. We've done what since Bruce? Not a damn thing.

We've done what since Phil?? Suck. Badly.

Firing successful coaches with no real plan to advance is just plain and simple STUPID.

Repeating the process is the definition of insanity.

BillVol writes:

Always remember that Mike Strange is a Kentucky native and a U. of Kentucky grad.

usnavyvolfan_on_duty writes:

in response to hodocka:

Its not a rivalry when 1 team wins all the time. This game is big for us, not so much for Ky

I disagree for two reasons. First, a loss would do quite a bit of damage to their tournament prospects, at least as far as the seeding. Secondly, they make the trek to Knoxville every year and end up making half of TBA blue, so obviously it means SOMETHING to them.
Anyway, today should be a good game. Stokes has really come along since the meeting in Lexington, so I like our chances.

usnavyvolfan_on_duty writes:

in response to BillVol:

Always remember that Mike Strange is a Kentucky native and a U. of Kentucky grad.

So...I didn't find anything in the article that I disputed. He included a lot of quotes from UT players and coaches/ex-coaches alike. It is what it is. UK is a storied basketball program. They have a tradition they can be proud of. UT is an average basketball program. Anytime we can beat UK it's special. I don't really think there's any "pro-UK" bias in this article, though.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

Because of the whole Noel thing now all eyes are on Cal and KY in this game..This is a great chance for the Vols and especially the home crowd to take all their hype and stick it where the sun don't shine

SouthDakotaBob writes:

in response to emailnodata:

Ah, yeah, the Devoe years...akin to firing Fulmer, another huge dumb-a## move.

"Retiring" Devoe and, oh, did exactly what until Bruce? Not a damn thing. We've done what since Bruce? Not a damn thing.

We've done what since Phil?? Suck. Badly.

Firing successful coaches with no real plan to advance is just plain and simple STUPID.

Repeating the process is the definition of insanity.

Amen brother. GBO!!!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

Well we can put this one in the books.hehe

jmaples54 writes:

in response to usnavyvolfan_on_duty:

I disagree for two reasons. First, a loss would do quite a bit of damage to their tournament prospects, at least as far as the seeding. Secondly, they make the trek to Knoxville every year and end up making half of TBA blue, so obviously it means SOMETHING to them.
Anyway, today should be a good game. Stokes has really come along since the meeting in Lexington, so I like our chances.

stokes played with a lot of confidence, but so did the rest of the team. cuonzo is continuing the progress of last year: improving as the season goes on. where are those crybabies who don't like cuonzo's "boring" style?

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