It’s been the year of the Volunteer in college basketball thus far. Now, things start to get more interesting for Tennessee.

The Vols won their 19th consecutive game, the longest current streak in Division I, Wednesday night by defeating South Carolina. Hidden amid all that applause, however, is the fact that they haven’t competed against a ranked team since Dec. 9, when they beat then-No. 1 Gonzaga.

That’s about to change. When Tennessee plays Saturday night at No. 5 Kentucky, it will start a strenuous series of Saturdays that includes games at No. 19 Louisiana State on Feb. 23, the rematch with the Wildcats at home on March 2, and its March 9 regular-season finale at Auburn, which has been in and out of the Top 25.

“There’s a lot of basketball left to be played,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said after the South Carolina win.

“I like to think that if everything goes in and we play the way we are capable of, we should be able to handle a lot. There is no doubt that Kentucky feels the same way. They are a top-five team, and LSU is a top-10 team. They have had a great year and have stayed underneath the radar a little bit. [But Kentucky] is the next one on the schedule, and we have to be prepared to do what we have to do.”

The Volunteers have talent. Junior forward Grant Williams averages 19.4 points and 7.5 rebounds, shoots 83.2 percent from the line, and makes 6.2 free throws per game. He is well supported by senior guard Admiral Schofield (16.7 ppg., 6.4 rpg) and junior guard Jordan Bone (13.2 ppg., 6.6 apg.).

Happiness in the valley

It hasn’t been a great season for Penn State basketball, but the Nittany Lions found a reason to smile Tuesday night after a 75-69 upset of No. 6 Michigan.

Before then, the Lions (9-15, 2-11 Big Ten) were 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime, and 1-3 in games decided by six to nine points. They stayed strong against the Wolverines with the help of junior forward Lamar Stevens, a former Roman Catholic High star who contributed 26 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocked shots.

Penn State's Lamar Stevens (11) has logged a lot of minutes this season.
TNS
Penn State's Lamar Stevens (11) has logged a lot of minutes this season.

Coach Patrick Chambers said Stevens, who played 39 minutes and averages 36.5, can handle the workload.

“I’ll talk to him throughout the game, ‘How you feeling, you need [a rest]’ and he’ll let me know,” Chambers said. “If I see his defense slip at all, I know it’s time to get him out. But for the most part, if his mind is clear and he feels good, then he’s going to stay out there as long as he doesn’t put a fist up. He’s been a really consistent player for us.”

At No. 69 in the NET, Penn State is the metric’s highest-ranked team with a losing record.

Who will be next?

With the regular season winding down, there remain six teams without a single conference victory entering Saturday’s play. That includes two members of Power Five conferences: the SEC’s Vanderbilt (0-11) and California (0-12) of the Pac-12.

The others are Tulane of the AAC (0-10), San Jose State (0-11) of the Mountain West, Portland (0-11) of the West Coast Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference’s Chicago State (0-9).

Lacking power

When last we looked, the Pac-12 still was considered a Power Five conference, but the truth is that the league could still wind up with just one team in the NCAA Tournament.

Washington leads the league by three games entering weekend action and is favored to win the conference’s automatic bid to the dance. The only other Pac-12 team mentioned in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket entry for ESPN.com is Arizona State, one of the last four in.

The Sun Devils, as you might recall, followed a December upset of then-No. 1 Kansas with a loss at home to Princeton.

This is the first time in seven years the Pac-12 has gone multiple weeks without a team in the rankings. The Huskies could have gotten in this week but suffered their first league loss last weekend at Arizona State.

Rah-rah, Ja!

Guard Ja Morant of Murray State is one of the most electrifying players in college basketball and will be one of the players showcased in the NCAA Tournament. That is, if he gets there.

Murray State's Ja Morant.
Timothy D. Easley / AP
Murray State's Ja Morant.

The Racers, ranked No. 68 in the NET, are tied for first place in the Ohio Valley Conference with Belmont after Thursday night’s win over Austin Peay, which is one game behind. Since the OVC is likely a one-bid league, only the conference tournament champion is likely to go to the NCAAs.

Morant’s added sizzle makes him must-see TV. The 6-3 sophomore guard has vaulted up the NBA Draft ladder to a probable lottery pick, maybe even somewhere in the top five, He is averaging 24.3 points per game and leads Division I in assists at 10.1 per game despite a nagging ankle injury suffered Jan. 24.

Expatriates of the week

Sophomore center Paul Newman (Roman Catholic) and freshman guard Andrew Funk (Archbishop Wood) are two key reserves for Bucknell, the first-place team in the Patriot League.

The 6-foot-9, 234-pound Newman averages 4.3 points and 3.1 rebounds, and 1.24 blocked shots, third in the league, with season highs of 13 points, seven rebounds and four blocks against Canisius. Funk averages 3.4 points but came off the bench for 15 in a recent win over Lafayette.

Games of the week

Maryland at Michigan, Saturday at noon, Fox 29: The Wolverines were shocked Tuesday night at Penn State and face a young Terrapins team that posted its best win of the season over Purdue. Only one game separates co-leaders Michigan and Michigan State and Purdue and Maryland in the Big Ten.

Iowa State at Kansas State, Saturday at 4 p.m., ESPN2: The Wildcats have opened a 1½-game lead in the Big 12 over Kansas and Texas Tech. The Cyclones lost at home to K-State last month on a shot at the buzzer, and a sweep in Manhattan would leave them three games back with six to play.

Tennessee at Kentucky, Saturday at 8 p.m., ESPN: The SEC’s game of the year finds the Wildcats needing to forget about their previous game, a loss to LSU on a disputed tip-in at the buzzer. Their defense will try to limit the Volunteers, who shoot 51.6 percent and average 85.4 points.

Virginia at Virginia Tech, Monday at 7 p.m., ESPN: Forget that the Cavaliers have been swept by Duke; they’re 9-0 against the rest of the ACC. The renewal of this intrastate rivalry will be dominated by the defenses; both teams nationally are in the top 10 in points allowed.

North Carolina at Duke, Wednesday at 9 p.m., ESPN: One of the best rivalries in college basketball continues with the first of two matchups on Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils enter the weekend with a one-game lead in search of their first ACC regular-season championship since 2010.

Star watch

Zion Williamson, Duke, F, 6-7, 285, Fr., Spartanburg, S.C.

A consensus top-five recruit out of high school, Williamson has lived up to the hype as arguably the nation’s top freshman. He enters the weekend averaging 22.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocked shots and 2.25 steals, shooting 68.0 percent from the field.

Williamson posted his 10th double-double — 27 points, 12 rebounds — Tuesday night, when the Blue Devils rallied from a 23-point deficit with 9:55 to play and defeated Louisville, 71-69. Williamson has posted season highs of 35 points on Jan. 14 against Syracuse, and 17 rebounds on Feb. 5 vs. Boston College.