Kentucky loses to Tennessee: Wildcats face tough schedule and tougher questions ahead

Kentucky has signaled for weeks that it's well short of national championship caliber. But now things are looking more grim for John Calipari's freshman-flanked program. UK fans are no doubt gripping after their team's stumbling 61-59 home loss Tuesday night to a quality Tennessee team.

The Wildcats failed to score a point in the final 90 seconds. Meanwhile, Tennessee was gutsy and opportunistic. It ripped this game on the road and proved an aberrational turn of events: The University of Tennessee has a better, tougher basketball team than the University of Kentucky. 

UK is still ranked 24th but is unlikely to hold that AP number by next week because of this deflating loss. The Wildcats are 17-7 with a 6-5 SEC record. Inconsistency is this team's consistency. The regular-season league title is essentially out of reach; Auburn has only one loss in the SEC and Tennessee, which swept UK for the first time in 19 years, is two games up in the standings. With a conference crown now the stuff of imagination for Kentucky, the 2017-18 campaign will mark the fourth time in John Calipari's nine seasons in Lexington that UK will fail to finish atop the SEC. 

The trouble isn't just with the loss or the SEC title being a pipe dream -- it's with how Kentucky lost on Tuesday and what awaits on the schedule. Against Tennessee the Wildcats were worse than their typical iffy 3-point shooting selves: They made only three of their 14 attempts from beyond the arc. Kentucky managed only seven assists, six of which came from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who often looks like the only UK player who gives a damn. Even still, Gilgeous-Alexander's turnover with 10 seconds to go gifted the game to Tennessee. 

Tuesday's loss also marked the third straight game Kentucky failed to collect at least 10 assists. 

Elsewhere, another bad game for UK freshman wing Kevin Knox ends in another UK loss. Those things correlate. Knox is UK's best talent, but he's incapable of sustaining himself as that kind of player. Knox had 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting and was nonexistent in the final three minutes against the Vols and really did little for most of the final 10 minutes. Without him leading the way, Kentucky seems anemic. 

In terms of expectations vs. reality, shooting guard Hamidou Diallo is on the short list of the most disappointing players in the sport this season. Kentucky fans thought their 2017-18 season hinged on whether he opted to stay at UK vs. keeping his name in the draft. Diallo had zero points and two turnovers on Tuesday. It's baffling.

If Kentucky fans are stressed now, what awaits probably isn't going to make things easier. The Wildcats have been rickety in the rankings and bracket projections over the past month. As of Tuesday afternoon, Jerry Palm had UK on the 5 line. With this loss, clearly the Wildcats drop to a 6 seed. The schedule doesn't lighten for Calipari's crew. Next up is a pair of road games. The first is at Texas A&M, which has been disappointing but still has matchup problems on its roster in Robert Williams, D.J. Hogg and Tyler Davis

The Aggies are 15-8 and desperate to stay on the better side of the bubble. What's more, they could be ticked off; A&M will be coming off a road game against Auburn. If Texas A&M loses, they'll be all the more desperate against UK. That UK-A&M game comes Saturday.

And speaking of Auburn, the Tigers follow for Kentucky after A&M. That game will be played next Wednesday (Valentine's Day). The Tigers are ranked in the top 10 and sit at 21-2, one of the most surprising stories in the sport. Bruce Pearl's team finds itself on a throne normally occupied by UK.

Four of Kentucky's seven remaining regular-season games are on the road. UK is 3-3 in road environments this season. Kentucky might well wind up at only 19, 20 or 21 victories heading into the SEC tournament. Seed-wise, Kentucky is flirting with fire. It will make for an intriguing game no matter the opponent come NCAA Tournament time, but that doesn't eliminate the fact that Kentucky's a frustrating team to watch and seems set on remaining that way. 

The Wildcats are not yet in danger of repeating the 2012-13 team's infamous spiral to the NIT, but without any major injuries now (which did happen in 2012-13), in some ways this season could wind up as disappointing as that one. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories