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Tennessee’s comeback against Kentucky could serve as a turning point for the season

Things were learned.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night in Rupp Arena, two quick fouls in each half on Tennessee senior John Fulkerson may have changed the season for the Volunteers. That sounds dramatic, I know, but it forced Rick Barnes and his staff to operate differently for much of the game. It also may have busted them out of an offensive slump.

First things first, Kentucky is struggling. The Wildcats fell to 5-12 with the loss to Tennessee, but they certainly aren’t short on talent. John Calipari’s team benefitted early on from, let’s just say a few friendly whistles, which put Tennessee in a tough spot. The Wildcats entered the bonus with over 14 minutes left to play in the first half, and five Tennessee players found themselves with at least two fouls by halftime.

It was a balancing act for Barnes, who turned to Uros Plavsic and E.J. Anosike off the bench. More importantly, it forced him to hand the keys to the car to Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. All season long, Tennessee just hasn’t had that guy that can go get a bucket. Against Kentucky, Tennessee found two of them.

“Obviously we started the game with too many fouls early,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “Got ourselves in trouble there where we were trying to work that. What did in the second half was what we were trying to get done in the first half. Trying to get going downhill, 94 feet. And I thought those guys got in a rhythm there where you could just feel that they had that attack mode.”

Something clicked — maybe it was simply having Fulkerson off of the floor and knowing that they had to go make it happen themselves. Whatever it was, it took entirely too long to find.

Keon Johnson ended Saturday night with 27 points on 9-16 shooting. Jaden Springer put up 23 on 9-17 shooting. Just one other player, Josiah-Jordan James, took double-digit shots. All of this coming just five days removed from the freshmen duo putting up a combined 13 points at Ole Miss. Fulkerson’s night ended with zero points in just ten minutes.

That isn’t to say that Johnson and Springer can’t co-exist with Fulkerson, but something clearly clicked with the senior taking a backseat. Barnes and his staff have been telling this team to get out and run for a couple of weeks. Finally with their backs against the wall and down ten points, Tennessee stomped on the gas pedal.

“The last couple days in practice all we had talked about is run, run, run, run, run and get out in transition,” Barnes said. “Get easy baskets, try to get teams back on their heels as much as we can.”

In the second half, that’s exactly what the Volunteers did. It was Keon going full throttle to the hoop and finishing or getting to the free throw stripe. It was Jaden doing the same thing. The two were feeding off of each other as they quite literally took over the game.

“They bullied us, and they are freshman,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the game. “They were the best two guards are on the court, whether they are freshmen, seniors, sophomores, whatever, they were the best two. But again, they were the best two because they were physical and they bullied us. It wasn’t like they were jacking threes and going nuts. They just went to wherever they wanted to on the court and either went into your body and shot or jumped over and you shot.”

It was a totally different look and feel for Tennessee — less thinking, more running. This moment has a chance to be a turning point for the season of a team that had dropped three of their last five games. We’ve been here before, last weekend actually, but this one felt a little different. This wasn’t Tennessee shooting 60 percent from three-point range, this was (hopefully) Johnson and Springer figuring out that this is their team and they need to be the instigators.

“We still have John and Yves,” Barnes continued. “If that’s not effective, this is what we felt we could always do with those guys once they figured it out. Hopefully tonight they did. We thought we might have had some things figured out after the Kansas game and we came back and didn’t do what we wanted in terms of being aggressive. I’m just really proud of those guys.

“Hopefully they understand that they’re more capable, doing more than they probably have up to this point.”

Tennessee will host Florida on Wednesday night and then travel to LSU on Saturday afternoon.