Kentucky's surprising blowout win over Tennessee could serve as a blessing for both teams
Just because Tennessee got handled by Kentucky, that doesn't make the Vols frauds
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky killed off Tennessee's school-record win streak with a kaboom on Saturday night, offering up one of the most impressive and noteworthy wins by any team this college basketball season.
Kentucky 86, Tennessee 69 is going to be the kind of score that reverberates throughout college basketball and serves as a bullet point on the Wildcats' résumé come Selection Sunday. Not just an impressive win, but a statement that will ring loudest of any this weekend. This was the biggest margin of victory for Kentucky against a No. 1-ranked team in school history.
So, yeah: an all-time outcome and affirmation that Kentucky at its best is as dangerous as any team in America.
Many of the locals in Lexington are saying Rupp Arena hasn't been so lively and rambunctious as it was for this game in a long time -- not even for the Louisville hatefests in recent years. That's what happens when the first top-five matchup in the 109-year history of this orange-vs.-blue rivalry finally takes place.
"There was one point in the first half I couldn't hear," UK sophomore PJ Washington, who had a game-high 23 points, said. "I was trying to talk to [Ashton Hagans] and I couldn't even hear myself."
Kentucky was ready; Tennessee was shoddy. And so the Wildcats' Final Four hopes, and their SEC title chances, are looking a lot more optimistic and realistic now than where things stood Saturday morning. The team and the town delivered on what's already being acknowledged as one of the special nights in the John Calipari Era, and that's quite clearly saying something special.
Kentucky didn't allow dramatics to enter into the dynamic of Saturday night. The Volunteers had won a program-record 19 straight, but much of their run had come against mediocre-or-worse competition across the previous eight weeks. UT hadn't faced a ranked team in more than two months. On Saturday night, that lack of worthy competition looked like it weakened Tennessee's jaw.
"We were a selfish team offensively," Vols coach Rick Barnes said.
This might become the best season of Barnes' 40-plus-year career in coaching, but Saturday night was regrettable in so many facets. Grant Williams, a National Player of the Year candidate, managed just four field goal attempts. He probably won't play a worse game this season; Williams did take a beating, though, in what was a bruiser of a game.
Barnes was flummoxed at points, confused by the team in Volunteer uniforms he was watching -- alien to the group he'd been coaching for much of the season.
"What we didn't want to do is get in a wrestling match," Barnes said.
That's exactly what Kentucky did, flexing between the brawny low-post game and the flare of the 3-point shot, which put them in the lead early. Kentucky looked like a team angry to avenge a bitter home loss from Tuesday.
"The loss to LSU probably helped us win this game," Calipari said.
The thing that will be lost in the immediate aftermath is how close Tennessee managed to keep it in the first half. The Vols were only down six despite a physical opening 20 minutes (with a lot of fouls uncalled) and Keldon Johnson hitting four 3-pointers.
Then UK opened the second half on a 14-0 run, its longest run of the season, to break the game open to a 20-point margin. Tennessee does not have a lot of weaknesses, but its inability to use the 3-pointer as a catalyst against more talented teams is glaring. The Vols were never going to come all the way back against a top-five opponent in one of the most intimidating environments in college basketball.
Kentucky played bully-ball, smartly, and opened up new dimensions into its potential. Shooting guard Tyler Herro, who averaged 4.0 rebounds coming into the game, finished with a season-high 13. That's maybe the most damning stat against Tennessee. It's strong but undersized and doesn't chase the boards like it should. That broke the Vols vs. UK.
It's undeniable: Tennessee looked like a team that hadn't been challenged since we flipped the calendar to 2019. One of the toughest and most physically imposing teams in college basketball wilted in Rupp Arena, making Kentucky look as good or better than it's been all season. It was strange to witness.
"They dominated us every way you can be dominated," Barnes said, then hammered home his point. "I thought it was the most selfish that we've been all year."
It was odd to see Tennessee not just out of sorts, but physically overwhelmed. Washington crossed the 20-point threshold for the seventh time in the past eight games. Afterward, Calipari said Washington had grad transfer teammate Reid Travis to thank; Travis handled the load of Tennessee's frontcourt, so Washington took advantage.
"They've not overrated," Calipari insisted of Tennessee. "Probably underrated."
In fact that might prove correct. The whiplash reaction to Tennessee betraying its ranking and standing could lead to some thinking the Vols are frauds. But that's folly. Some thought the same thing about Kentucky back in early November. UK's season-opening embarrassment to Duke -- that infamous 118-84 loss in Indianapolis -- cast an initial pall over the preseason No. 2 team in college basketball.
Now we've seen the fifth-ranked Wildcats dominating the No. 1 team in the polls, getting the program's best win by margin of victory (17) ever in the process. Tennessee, with all of its experience and still boasting two of the top 20 players in college basketball in Williams and Admiral Schofield, is not going to shrink from this moment.
"Do we have to go up to Knoxville?" Calipari joked afterward.
Indeed. March 2 is the rematch.
Near the end of the game, the Kentucky student section began chanting "OVER-RATED!" to Tennessee. Calipari waved his arms and screamed at them to stop. They shut up. And as Schofield walked off the floor and back to the locker room, he also reminded Kentucky fans that their team still has to go drive south of the border in short order.
So before we go assuming Kentucky's the better team and Tennessee's a paper tiger, let's remember how hard it is to win 23 of your first 25 games -- and see how the Vols respond in two weeks to their most embarrassing loss of the season.
Tennessee gets to stew on this for 14 days. And now a No. 1 seed could be on the line in the South region. It's been a long time since the SEC had a race this compelling with so much at stake nationally. We may come to find this loss was the best possible outcome for both teams, even if Tennessee can't see that clearly right now.
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