In some ways, if this was any other second ranked team in the nation that wasn't named "Kentucky", both teams would've walked out of the gym feeling good about themselves today. People take it for granted because they do it every year now, but a team playing tons of freshmen and sophomores getting a tough, grind it out win like that on the road is a major accomplishment. Their fans will probably be quick to tell you that last year's team doesn't win this game at this point of the season on the road.
It hurts for us because it's Kentucky, of course. We're better at beating them than any other SEC team is, and Tennessee had its chances today. So to be so close and to come up short against Big Blue in our own house is very frustrating; Kentucky has now won four straight in the series.
But in other ways, because it was Kentucky, Tennessee should continue to hold its head high. And all of us - all of us - should continue to know and believe that Cuonzo Martin has Tennessee moving in the right direction, just as John Calipari has this Kentucky team doing the same. Kentucky has now won the same number of SEC road games (2) it did in the entire 2011 season.
And Tennessee, same as they did against Florida in victory and Mississippi State in defeat, showed that the Vols are going to be a factor every single night.
Let's hold off on Jarnell Stokes for a moment, because there were other really good things about this game and I don't want his very impressive debut to be the only story. Jeronne Maymon continues to lead, another double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Maymon did what Tennessee hasn't been able to do for the last month today: get to the free throw line, which was especially important against Kentucky's forest of defenders in the paint. Tennessee made a point to get it inside (Kenny Hall added 8 points in 18 minutes), and found success from their post players even as Kentucky was credited with eight blocked shots.
It was team defense, again, that put Tennessee in position to win. Austin Peay shot 59.1% against the Vols, then Charleston followed up with 49.0%. Though the Vols improved by holding Asheville, ETSU, and The Citadel to under 45%, Memphis had success at 47.2%. But to open SEC play, the Vols have held Florida to 35.7%, Mississippi State to 44.0%, and Kentucky today worked hard to get to 42.9%. Doron Lamb was held to 1 of 7 and UK got almost nothing from Darius Miller until he hit big free throws in the final seconds.
When this team plays defense like that, this team will have a chance to win. And today proved the point: it doesn't matter who the opponent is.
Now, let's talk about Jarnell Stokes.
A kid that just turned 18, hadn't played organized basketball in months, and was in his very first collegiate action against #2 Kentucky and their NBA post players? 9 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 charge taken, all in 17 minutes. (Stokes in the postgame on going against UK's players: "They're tough, but I was prepared. It don't get no tougher than battling Maymon (in practice).") He had a couple of "sorry, I'm new" moments on defensive assignments, but what did you expect?
Because I didn't expect this.
Tennessee's most talented team - the 2007-08 squad - was so dangerous because they could come down the floor and set up with Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith on either wing, and Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism on either block. There was no way to account for all of them.
The Vols today, at times, had a lineup that put Skylar McBee and Cameron Tatum (16 points after an o-fer in Starkville, great to see) on either wing, with Maymon and Stokes together on either block. With Trae Golden, who had only two points but got six assists. That's a lineup that can give this team some terrific options on the offensive end.
That's where Tennessee truly lost the game today: tied at 54-54 on a Kenny Hall score with 6:59 to play, the Vols didn't score again until Skylar McBee's heave with 39 seconds left with UK up eight. The Vols kept going inside during that sequence, but couldn't finish and couldn't get to the line. Add in an ill-advised three from Golden, and we gave Kentucky way too many chances, and a good team like that will eventually take advantage against even the best defense. Today was the second lowest point total of the season for Kentucky. But they still found a way to win.
Kentucky, of course, is going to get even better. You look at Anthony Davis, who looks like he's still figuring out his own body at times, but is just such a force inside on both ends of the floor. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gives UK what UT does not have: someone who can go off the dribble and attack the basket successfully. He was the most important player today, which is really impressive considering he shot 4 of 11.
But the Vols are going to get better too.
The more Jarnell Stokes gets involved, the more chances will open up for other players in UT's halfcourt offense. The Vols could use more consistency from Golden and Tatum, but if what we saw from Stokes today continues to mature, Tennessee will have an incredibly strong (in every sense of the word) one-two punch in the paint. And Kenny Hall continues to be a nice piece of that puzzle as well.
And again: play defense like that, you'll have a real chance to win every night against any team.
It's cheap and easy fun to talk about how good the Vols will be next year, or the magic number to qualify for the NIT (9-7 in league play, or 8-8 with a win over UConn next Saturday). Calipari called the Vols an NCAA Tournament team in the postgame, and Cuonzo said, "If the season started today, we're just as good as anybody." UT's resume has already taken serious blows with too many close losses to good teams and that Austin Peay stinker. It would take something really, really strong from here just to get in the dance conversation, and all these close losses would have to become close wins the next time around. But look, you can always play your way into the dance in the SEC Tournament. It's not our job to worry about that right now, nor this team's.
This team's job is to beat Georgia in Athens on Wednesday. Tennessee didn't capitalize on the after-Maui momentum and the season went off-course. Now the Vols come off a three game stretch against three Top 20 teams where they've played really good basketball. The Vols have to take this thing to Athens and keep it moving forward.
This game was a heavyweight fight. When the Vols couldn't knock Kentucky out, the Cats wore UT down and won the decision in the end. But Tennessee will be there in the end. The Vols come to fight every night. And we're only going to get stronger.
Shoutout to all the big money donors in the lower level, especially on the TV side, who sold their tickets and their souls to UK fans. On the biggest football recruiting weekend of the year. Great job.
Get behind this basketball team or give up your tickets.