Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl's first game back after serving an eight-game conference suspension couldn't come in a much more hostile environment than Rupp Arena.

"You walk in there and it's very special," Pearl said. "There's an atmosphere that's very festive."

The Volunteers (15-8, 5-3 SEC) travel to Lexington, Ky., for a matchup with the 18th-ranked Wildcats (16-6, 4-4 SEC).

"Great opportunities for Tennessee basketball this week, because not many people are going to beat Kentucky at Kentucky," Pearl said. "Nobody's beaten them yet at their place."

The Wildcats are a perfect 10-0 at home in Rupp Arena, but just 1-4 on the road in league play.

"Very, very talented team," Pearl said of Kentucky. "Some very special players."

The Wildcats are led by point guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones.

Knight and Jones both rank in the SEC's top five in scoring. Knight averages 17.5 points per contest, while Jones adds a team-high 17.9 to go along with 8.9 rebounds a game.

"Those two guys will get votes for player of the year in the league," Pearl said of the freshmen duo. "Great future NBA talents."

Pearl noted that this year's Kentucky team was much different from last year's Elite Eight team, which went 35-3 and lost five first-round NBA draft picks.

"Last year, we played zone almost exclusively in three games," Pearl said. "This year, we won't be able to play any zone because of their ability to shoot the ball and spread the floor."

While this Kentucky team is more guard-oriented with the loss of DeMarcus Cousins down low, John Calipari's reliance on freshman play early in the year has led to some early-season losses.

"They've lost four games in conference, and all of them on the road," Pearl said. "All of them where they had a chance (to win late). They were down every time and they battled back, so they've got some character to them, they've got some toughness to them and they are really, really close to putting it all together."

Putting it all together for the Wildcats means getting better on the offensive end, because Pearl is impressed by the Wildcats' team defense.

"It's an excellent defensive team," he said. "Probably the second-best defensive team in the league behind Alabama — as far as having everybody to guard, move their feet, rally and help, block shots — very solid defensively."

Still, the Vols believe they need to play within the game plan if they hope to give Calipari his first loss in Rupp Arena as the Wildcats' head coach.

"They bring in talent every year," junior guard Cameron Tatum said. "It's all about preparing and scouting those guys, paying attention to details, everything they do. I think we should go up there and execute the game plan the way coaches have set out for us and we'll be fine."

The Vols should benefit from the return of junior guard Scotty Hopson. The team's leading scorer missed the past two games with a left ankle sprain but is expected to play in his home state.

"There are going to be some things Scotty can do," Pearl said. "There are going to be some things he won't be able to do."

Hopson is officially listed as "questionable" for the game, but Pearl "anticipates he'll try to go" if cleared by UT trainers.

Tennessee and Kentucky tip-off at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN.

McRae back

Guard Jordan McRae was reinstated to the team on Monday. The freshman had been suspended since Jan. 22 for violating the team's conduct rules.

McRae practiced with the Vols on Monday, but did not travel with the team to Kentucky.