From the opening tip to very late in the second half, Kentucky was the more aggressive team. PJ Washington, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson took it to Tennessee in every way possible on Saturday night, breezing by the No. 1 team in the nation by 17 points.
Everything that we knew Tennessee basketball to be didn’t show through at Rupp Arena. Tennessee looked timid and lost — they got punched in the mouth and didn’t respond. It was uncharacteristic from the Vols, who have built a brand on outworking their opponents for forty minutes.
“The things that we said we needed to do tonight, we didn’t do,” Barnes said after the loss. “We were a really poor, selfish team offensively. I told the coaches I don’t know who I’m looking at, what I’m looking at, where to turn. Because, again, we just didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
The team that has always been in control was out of sorts. Zero offensive rhythm doomed Tennessee, who have always seemed to figure something out when things have gone south this year. Kentucky’s defense was just too much on this night.
Grant Williams never got established in the post, taking just two shots from inside the arc. Kentucky collapsed on him at every chance, tying him up and forcing him to get rid of the ball. That nothing new for Grant, but the Wildcats did an outstanding job of clogging up every passing lane around Williams, which forced three turnovers from the reigning SEC player of the year.
“We just didn’t make good basketball plays,” Barnes said. “Driving to the basket, putting your head down. They blocked shots. Playing off balanced. Our offense really hurt us a lot. But I think you have to give them credit, all the credit in the world, for making those plays and getting us to play where we were out of sync. Give them all the credit.”
Tennessee just looked different. They’ve been playing outstanding basketball in large part due to the play of point guard Jordan Bone. Bone’s pace drives the Vols and stresses the opponent’s defense. For the most part on Saturday night, that pace was non-existent. That didn’t go unnoticed from Rick Barnes.
“He’s the guy that determines if we play fast,” Barnes said of Bone. “At the end of the game, when he started playing fast, we played faster. Start of the game, he didn’t. He was walking it up the floor. That was our No. 1 emphasis. Let’s get it going, let’s do what we do. We didn’t do it at all. He’s the guy that has to make it go. If he starts running, they’ll run with him.”
That lack of aggression allowed Kentucky to set up their half-court defense, giving Tennessee nothing but contested looks all night. Even the few open shots that Lamonte Turner and Admiral Schofield found didn’t fall.
Tennessee may have been able to overcome a poor shooting night, but they weren’t going to be able to do it while losing the rebounding battle like they did. Kentucky manhandled the Vols on the boards, winning the rebounding battle 39-26. Once again, it was a simple difference in mindset.
“We’ve been telling them for two weeks now that we needed to rebound the ball better,” Barnes said. “We haven’t. There are good coaches in this league and they see we’re not going to get it and rebound the way we need to. We kept telling our guys sooner or later it’s going to bite us.”
You knew Tennessee was walking into a buzzsaw. It’s Rupp Arena, coming off a tough loss to LSU and the Vols had a ‘one’ beside their name. Tennessee is used to getting their opponents best shot, but lingering bad habits — like a lack of aggression on the boards — finally bit the Vols.
It’s far from the end of the world. After all, it’s just a game in February. This is about how Tennessee responds. The good news here is that Rick Barnes has plenty of ammo after this one. He’s going to use every opportunity to cut this team down to size over the next week. You can probably bet that he’s going to play the audio of Jay Bilas saying “Kentucky is manhandling Tennessee” at every chance possible.
This group has done nothing to make us think they won’t come out and respond. They’ve got plenty of opportunities to do that down the stretch, including a rematch with the same Wildcats in 13 days.