In order to get the good, tough wins in conference play, teams usually aren't able to rely on one guy to always get things done. Others have to have big days -- career days, even -- in order to pull out victories that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
That was the case for Kentucky Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena, where the Wildcats were tested (most specifically in the paint) against a brute Tennessee team. The Wildcats won 74-66, and it was kind of ugly and the win came about in a different sort than any other UK victory so far this season. But style doesn't matter much right now; Kentucky needs to keep pace in the SEC with the league's best team, Florida, so getting the wins and building confidence is much more important than how those wins come about.
The vital player for the Wildcats on Saturday turned out to be freshman Andrew Harrison, who put up a career-high 26 points. He was 10-of-10 from the line and had no turnovers. Wildcats fans will eagerly tell you he was the reason why the Volunteers couldn't ever catch up in the second half. Not the reason? All-American candidate Julius Randle, who didn't make one field goal in the second half and finished with a season-low two rebounds. Strange to see.
Randle going against Jarnell Stokes had a potential to be one of the best big man vs. big man matchups in hoops this season. Instead, Stokes owned the low block and Randle had four turnovers and wasn't a factor -- again -- in the second half for Kentucky. (We also saw this happen during UK's win over Louisville a couple of weeks back.)
Also a non-factor? Willie Cauley-Stein, the Wildcats center who went for five missed shots, zero points and three rebounds. For Kentucky to be a Final Four contender, Cauley-Stein and Randle will have to show up big. But again, winning and building means overcoming duds like these two put out today (and I will note that Randle quietly put up 18, nevertheless) and still getting a win. A comfortable win, even.
Stokes went for 20 points and 15 rebounds, putting up arguably the best game on the interior of any Kentucky opponent this season. Tennessee is now 11-6, though. The Volunteers have shown some strides but could be the most frustrating team of any this season, considering the talent overall isn't mixing to be a top-three SEC team, which it could/should be.
And losing games to Xavier, North Carolina State, UTEP and Texas A&M, as Tennessee has done, is showing the thin line that grows thicker, the separation between a team like Kentucky and a team like Tennessee -- especially in a weaker major conference like the SEC.