KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari won’t rule out the possibility injured forward Reid Travis could play Saturday at Tennessee but concedes the scenario is unlikely.
Travis sprained his right knee in a victory over Missouri on Feb. 19 and hasn’t played since. The Stanford graduate transfer’s defense on Southeastern Conference scoring leader Grant Williams played a large role in Kentucky’s 86-69 triumph over Tennessee at Rupp Arena two weeks ago.
“We’re going to see what he does today and tomorrow, but I doubt it,” Calipari said Friday. “What kids try to do is convince you that they can do this. My whole thing is this is about the long season, not the short season. This will be a hard game whether he plays or not.”
No. 7 Tennessee doesn’t expect any less of a test in its rematch with No. 4 Kentucky just because the Wildcats likely won’t be playing at full strength. The Volunteers lost 82-80 in overtime last week to No. 13 LSU when Javonte Smart replaced the ailing Tremont Waters in the starting lineup and scored a career-high 29 points.
“When you lose a player or you’re down a player, someone steps up,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We saw that firsthand at LSU. That’s what you expect, regardless of who you play.”
Kentucky (24-4, 13-2), Tennessee (25-3, 13-2) and LSU (23-5, 13-2) are in a three-way tie for first place in the league standings. LSU has the tiebreaker advantage in regard to SEC Tournament seeding because it went 2-0 against Kentucky and Tennessee.
That makes Saturday’s Kentucky-Tennessee matchup crucial for both teams.
“The good news for us is they have as much to lose as we do,” Calipari said. “It’s always nice every once in a while — maybe three times a year — to have a game like that, where the other team has as much to lose as you do. We play games where the other team has nothing to lose.”
Calipari said Friday that Travis “was unbelievable keeping an eye on Williams defensively” during the first Kentucky-Tennessee matchup. Williams scored 16 points by getting to the free-throw line frequently, but he had just four field-goal attempts.
Kentucky also outrebounded Tennessee 39-26 that night while stopping the Vols’ school-record 19-game winning streak.
“I do think they were more physical, no question about that,” Barnes said. “I think our guys know that. We just have to play harder than we played (at Kentucky). I think everyone knows that.”
The Wildcats have won their first two games without Travis but needed to rally from a 15-point deficit Tuesday to eke out a 70-66 home victory over Arkansas. EJ Montgomery has replaced Travis in the starting lineup while Nick Richards has provided a spark off the bench.
“We know (Tennessee’s) going to come out fighting and try to hit us first,” Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans said. “We just can’t let that happen. We’re down a big, and EJ and Nick are going to have to step up. When they give us something, we’re just going to have to feed off that.”
Tennessee doesn’t face the same type of health issues beyond what Barnes termed as “just minor things that you have this time of year with a couple different guys.” Starting forward Kyle Alexander played just 11 minutes in a 73-71 victory over Mississippi on Wednesday after testing positive for the flu a couple of days beforehand.
But the Vols’ biggest edge Saturday involves the game’s location.
Tennessee has won 24 straight at home and has beaten Kentucky in this building each of the last three seasons. Calipari said the challenge of Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena is “like playing in Rupp Arena if you’re an opponent.”
He added that the Vols’ visit to Kentucky offered some indication that this year’s trip to Knoxville could be particularly troublesome.
“I’ve been here 10 years, and the Tennessee game is the first game I can ever remember seeing the opponents’ fans in our building,” Calipari said. “I saw orange. I was like, ‘What in the world?’ And those tickets were expensive. It must mean they’ve got very wealthy fans, I have no idea. But they were there. (That) really means that they’re into this basketball team, they’re into their coach, they’re into their players.”
AP freelance writer Keith Taylor in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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