Entering Saturday, Tennessee had not allowed a team to crack the 80-point barrier this season.
Kentucky did it in 29 minutes of gameplay. (Not normal.)
Tennessee also entered the day allowing a repressive 60.7 points per game and was the No. 2-rated per-possession defense in the sport, according to KenPom. Kentucky dropped UT from second to seventh in defensive efficiency after scoring more than anyone had on Tennessee in almost 22 years. (Still not normal.) The 18th-ranked Wildcats put up an instantly legendary performance that will not be forgotten by Big Blue Nation: 107-79 over No. 22 Tennessee.
It came with an emotional backdrop, as the Wildcats happened to put on one of the best games the program has had in years just hours after a beloved figure, former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, died at the age of 93.
John Calipari's hands gripped a rolled-up program — the signature sideline look of Hall's time with Big Blue — and he had another tribute to display. It came on the first play of the game. Tennessee won the tip and Kentucky immediately dropped back into a 1-3-1 zone.
"I've never used it as far as I can remember," Cal said of that zone look.
He did it for Joe. That formation was a Hall specialty during his era with the Wildcats (1973-85). Hall was the last coach John Wooden ever coached against, that 1975 NCAA championship game being one of three times Hall took UK to college basketball's grandest stage. He won it all in 1978, effectively ensuring Kentucky men's basketball would continue its role of blueblood in the post-Adolph Rupp era.
In honor of Joe B. Hall 🗞 pic.twitter.com/D7yisGGsaa— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 15, 2022
When Calipari took the Kentucky gig in 2009, Hall became among the most important people in his life, which was true until his dying day. How fitting that on Saturday, of all days, Kentucky played better than not just anyone else in the sport on this day, but its 1.47 points per possession rank as the third-best single-game offensive performance this season.
To do it against Tennessee of all teams. Something a smidge cosmic about what happened at Rupp Arena. These teams have a 111-year-old rivalry. This could be as impressive of a win as Kentucky's ever had against its border rival.
"This was a celebration for Coach Hall," Calipari said during his postgame Zoom media availability. "To the very end he smiled. He smiled. Ninety-three good years."
Nostalgia and recognition of tradition and history are significant to the Kentucky program and those fans who often attach themselves to the accomplishments of the past just as much as the aspirations of the present. Calipari said he'll be sporting that rolled-up program at every game for the remainder of the season.
For UK, Saturday was no turning point. Rather, it was the latest reason to believe this group is good enough to win a national championship. This week's Court Report led with the Wildcats and noted that this team is the only one in the past 20-plus years of Kentucky ball to log double-digit victories in all of its wins through at least the first 10 games. That streak stretched to 14 with UK's 28-point blowout of the Vols. Calipari's team is winning games by an average of 26.6 points.
The Wildcats had the game effectively over by the second half under-16 timeout, and freshman UK guard TyTy Washington made sure of it. Washington finished with a career-high 28 points. Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler returned from a two-game absence because of a neck injury to add 21 points. Davidson transfer Kellan Grady dropped 16.
Oh, and Kentucky's best player? That'd be Oscar Tshiebwe, whose services were appreciated but not totally needed. Twelve rebounds, nine points, thanks for chipping in. With 14 minutes remaining Kentucky was shooting 30 for 38 from the field and 7 for 10 from 3-point range, which equated to 78.9%, an absurd number so deep into the game. Kentucky was cruising above 1.50 points per possession until late. Its 79% field-goal rate in the first half tied program record.
Kentucky finished with 71% shooting from 2-point range and 61% beyond the arc — good for 68% overall. It shot 95% from the foul line and outscored Tennessee 27-1 on fast break points, which were aided by 10 steals.
Simply: one of the best offensive productions in school history.
Tennessee was far from bad — it just never had a chance. UT finished with 79 points on 53.6% shooting. According to College Basketball Reference, fewer than five teams in the past 12 seasons have shot at least 53% and lost by more than 25 points. Tennessee entered the game third nationally in turnover margin (+6.4). Kentucky played this game +8.
Welcome back to the national conversation, Kentucky. A year ago this team was in the midst of one of its worst seasons ever. Calipari overhauled the roster and UK entered the season as a top-15 team. Then it failed to win against some of its high-profile opponents, and so UK's remained a ranked group but hasn't been at the forefront of the title-contender conversation. Some of this has also been due to the likes of Alabama, Auburn and LSU holding gaudier records or landing bigger wins to this point.
Entering the day Kentucky was a No. 7 seed in our latest Bracketology forecast, but that obviously won't hold true coming out of the weekend. Even if, résumé-wise, Kentucky (14-3, 4-1 SEC) is a 5-seed at best right about now, it's playing like one of the five best teams in the sport. We haven't regarded this team in those terms all season. This win changes that. Beating 14 opponents by almost 30 points on average should change that. Six of its past eight games have seen UK score 83 or more points.
Kentucky will lose some eventually here — the top third of the SEC is going to have multiple teams in the Sweet 16, I bet — but Calipari has too much on offense and is too good on the glass (Tshiebwe is the nation's leading rebounder at 14.9 per game) to not be a factor nationally moving forward.
According to the metrics, Tennessee's the best win on the board for UK. The only other quality one is North Carolina back in December at the CBS Sports Classic. Next Saturday we'll have a huge game: Kentucky at No. 4 Auburn. That result will mean something big, but no matter how it goes we already know this Kentucky team is going to be a factor in March. The last time UK was this good on offense, guys named De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk were in the starting lineup. That team made the Elite Eight and was a No. 2 seed.
Who knows where this season will ultimately go, but Saturday is going to be remembered for a long time by those who adore Big Blue hoops. A program legend passed on, a rival stepped into the arena, and the Kentucky Wildcats looked as fashionable as they did vintage in their dominance. Welcome back.