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UK-Tennessee game among nation's best rivalries

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MBSK 08_09 UK_TN Web15.jpgTennessee has always and will always be one of Kentucky's premier rivals. But is it becoming the biggest rivarly?
 
With the built-in border-state rivarly, the recent top-25 battles between the two teams and now the addition of the frosty relationship between coach John Calipari and Bruce Pearl, there's a pretty strong case that Tennessee means just as much as, dare I say, Louisville.
 
Those are fightin' words in some parts of this state when one starts talking rivalries and UK-U of L. To some, the Dream Game is not only the biggest game of the year for the Kentucky basketball team, it's the biggest, baddest and only game that matters.
 
But in terms of significance on the season, the Southeastern Conference title and NCAA Tournament seeding, the Tennessee game might be the most important rivalry on the season's slate.

"It is definitely a big rivalry in the SEC," senior guard Mark Krebs said. "We play them twice a year, so it is always important to get that first win between the two and to get it at home. Both teams are going to come out fighting. It has always been a big rivalry and this year it is a pretty big game."

So big that ESPN College GameDay is in town, making its first appearance at Rupp Arena in three years.

The headline in this year's rivalry is the ongoing soap opera between Calipari and Pearl. Although Calipari was quick to dismiss any feud between the two coaches on Friday, there's been no shortage of jabs in the war of words over the past few years.

"I respect him," Calipari said. "He can coach."

But respect and friendship are two different things. The two have waged countless recruiting battles in the backyard of Tennessee during Calipari's days at Memphis. That means they aren't always going to see eye to eye.

"We don't exchange birthday wishes or Christmas cards because we're rivals," Calipari said. "Do you know of any two coaches who are going at each other with two programs that are going to exchange pleasantries other than when I see him on the road, 'How are you? Good to see you?' But I respect him."

Earlier in the week, despite a Jodie Meeks 54-point blasting of a year ago in Knoxville, Tenn., former Tennessee legend Bernard King told the current Vols that Tennessee doesn't lose to Kentucky. It didn't take long for King's bravado to make its way to Lexington, only adding fuel to an already fiery rivalry.

"I wouldn't say (there is) hatred, but yeah, it is a rivalry, which makes it an emotional game," Krebs said. "We are going to go into the game and keep our emotions in check and just play basketball."

That might be easier said than done for some of the young players who have never experienced the backyard rivalry.

Earlier in the season, some of UK's freshmen admitted that they were surprised by the physicality, magnitude and importance of the Kentucky-Louisville game. Saturday could serve as another eye-opener.

"(I don't know) much about it," freshman forward Daniel Orton said of the rivalry. "I haven't heard much about it."

Orton said he had some fairly big rivalries on the high school stage during his high school days in Oklahoma City, Okla., but nothing will compare to Saturday night's venue, when the eyes of the nation will weigh down on the rivalry.

"We take it as a statement game," Krebs said. "Every game is big for us right now. We are ready to play, we are confident going into the game which you have to have. If we keep that up, whether College GameDay is here or not, we will be ready to go."

The game also carries huge significance within the league. With a win Saturday night, Kentucky can seemingly bury Tennessee in the SEC standings. A loss would drop the Volunteers to 6-4 in the conference, three games behind the Cats with six games to play.

Tennessee has been playing without Tyler Smith, who was dismissed from the team a month ago for a violation of team rules, but has played inspiring ball and remains in the top 15.

Calipari, despite the national perception that UK will win handily, warned his team to be wary of the Vols.

"They beat the No. 1 team in the country and have three players that were made eligible for this game," Calipari said. "We know how good they are."

Tennessee still boasts the likes of Kentucky native Scotty Hopson and Wayne Chism, both of whom average 13.1 points per game.

"You are talking about a group of talented players," Calipari said. "Obviously, Tyler Smith is a big hit for them. They are still a talented team. They have size, athleticism and they are well coached. They withstood all of this stuff. No one goes to Vandy and wins. Everyone loses at Vandy, so that game was one you would expect. Everything else, they have done what they were supposed to do and continue to win."

But like any good rivalry game, one throws out the past, the stats and the records when Kentucky and Tennessee play.

"It's a good thing because you want to see when it's time to step up, who steps up and who steps back," Calipari said. "And the only way you can do it is in games like this."

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we love you wildcats!

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