If revenge is a dish best served cold, No. 16 Tennessee certainly enjoyed its basketball gazpacho Tuesday night by avenging last month's 28-point thrashing at Rupp Arena by smashing No. 4 Kentucky 76-63 in the Wildcats' return trip to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Kentucky entered the game as a No. 1 seed, according to CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm, behind Gonzaga, Auburn and Arizona, in order on the top line of the projected bracket. But with Tennessee's victory, Kentucky will fall to a No. 2 seed for now, with Purdue expected to replace the Wildcats as the fourth No. 1 seed.
The first half set the stage for a chippy game with three combined technical fouls. Kentucky coach John Calipari picked up a technical foul in the first four minutes when he argued a call against Oscar Tshiebwe. And Kentucky led 17-15 when a brush up between Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler and Kentucky strength coach Rob Harris led to techs on Zeigler and the Kentucky bench, respectively.
The incident seemed to ignite the Volunteers, who put together a 17-1 run to go up 14 points. The Wildcats, meanwhile, went 11 minutes without a field goal and trailed 46-32 at halftime.
In the second half, a potential Kentucky run was met by one from Tennessee. The Wildcats twice cut the Volunteer lead to eight points, including at 53-45 with more than 11 minutes remaining. But Tennessee's Jonas Aidoo tipped in a bucket, with Zeigler drilling a 3-pointer, and the Volunteers were back on the right track. A 12-0 run put Tennessee up 20 points and effectively put an end to any Kentucky comeback hopes.
The Tennessee backcourt of Zeigler (14 points, four assists, four steals), Kennedy Chandler (17 points, six assists, two steals) and Santiago Vescovi (18 points) served as the driving force for the win, while John Fulkerson also chipped in 14 points. Tshiebwe led Kentucky's efforts with 13 points and 15 rebounds, though he shot just 5-for-15 from the floor.
Kentucky went nuclear in Lexington, Kentucky, Jan. 15, shooting 67.9% from the floor in a game where Tennessee never really had a chance. But harassed by a motivated Volunteer defense, the Wildcats shot a more manageable 34.3% as a team at Thompson-Boling Arena, and a huge advantage in points off turnovers in the first matchup was effectively flipped.
The Volunteer victory split the season series with the Wildcats and also left Tennessee (19-6) tied with Kentucky (21-5) in second place in the SEC standings with a 10-3 mark in conference play. Auburn leads the conference at 11-1, though the Tigers do have to come to Knoxville a week from Saturday, giving the Volunteers a chance to snatch a game back in the league race.
Zakai Zeigler continues terrific run
Heading into the season, Tennessee freshman Kennedy Chandler received most of the mention as an incoming five-star ranked as the nation's top point guard prospect, according to the 247Sports Composite. But it's apparent the Volunteers feed off the play of fellow freshman Zakai Zeigler, who serves as the Volunteers' nitrous oxide off the bench.
Zeigler was somewhat of a recruiting afterthought as the No. 237 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite. But he's found his footing and has scored at least 11 points in each of Tennessee's last seven games. Including Tuesday night's 14 points, he's averaging 22.9 points per 40 minutes over that stretch, driving the Volunteers with his energy.
It's unclear just how long Chandler will remain in Knoxville, but either way, Tennessee should feel good about what it has in its other freshman point guard, the 5-foot-9 jitterbug who plays with his hair on fire.
Defense is the difference
Kentucky's showing in Lexington against Tennessee stood out as one of the most lethal offensive performances of the season. The Volunteers made 57.1% of their 2-point attempts and 11-of-23 3-pointers (47.8%), and were effectively run out of the gym by a team that shot 71.1% inside the arc, 61.1% outside it and made 20-of-21 (95.2% of its free throws to boot).
This time, Tennessee shot better than Kentucky from all three levels, but that was more a statement about the Volunteer defense holding down a Kentucky offense that worked mostly without guard TyTy Washington, who didn't look himself over his 12 minutes played.
Kentucky scored 1.47 points per possession in the first game, which would have been the nation's best offense by a significant margin (Purdue is tops at 1.216). In Tuesday night's contest, Kentucky was at 0.93 points per possession, the equivalent of the nation's 322nd-best offense. That's some difference.
Two teams trending up at the right time
Both Kentucky and Tennessee have been hot; the Volunteers have now won eight of their last nine games, with the lone loss coming by one point at Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. For its part, Kentucky entered Tuesday night's game as one of the nation's hottest teams, winning its previous six games, scoring four of those wins by at least 10 points.
These are two teams trending in the right direction, though both have their flaws. Tennessee goes through the odd rough patches on offense where scoring can become a real chore. Kentucky gets significantly more mortal without Washington or when it plays against teams that the Wildcats don't instantly outclass athletically.
But the way both teams have played over the past few weeks, neither team is a squad that anyone wants to see come March.