That Kentucky loss (you know the one) might have just been the wake-up call that Tennessee needed.
The Volunteers opened SEC play just trying to keep their head above water, tasked with a tough schedule but also were admittedly not playing their best basketball at the time. They were outmatched on the road against LSU, nearly dropped a home game to an undermanned Ole Miss team, and then took one on the chin from Kentucky.
A 107-79 defeat seemed to be the bottom for this team, perhaps a true turning point for the season. Since then, Tennessee has ripped off seven straight SEC wins, taking care of the teams they should take care of.
They’ve climbed back to a projected No. 4 seed in most places, but they haven’t forgotten what happened last month in Lexington.
“Kentucky would’ve beaten anybody in the country (that day),” Rick Barnes said of Tennessee’s last meeting with the Wildcats. “I mean, they were just phenomenal. It was as good of a basketball (team effort) that we’ve ever coached against. I mean, they were phenomenal.”
John Calipari’s team quite literally couldn’t miss, spoiling a pretty good shooting day for Tennessee. The Volunteers shot 53 percent from the field and 47 percent from three, only to be outdone by Kentucky’s 67 and 61 percent, respectively.
As Barnes said, nobody was beating Kentucky on that day at home. Now Tennessee gets round No. 2 in Knoxville on Tuesday night.
“They came out and hit us early,” Barnes said. “We gave them the room to get out and run. Their basket looked like it had a magnet to it. You can’t take anything away from them, because they did anything and everything they wanted to do. I think they’ve improved since then, too. I think we’ve improved. There were a lot of mistakes that we made that game and we certainly can’t make them again or we’ll get the same results.”
Kentucky has found a groove since, climbing up inside of the top five in the polls and tracking favorably for a No. 1 seed. Calipari’s different looking team has paid off, filled out with veteran transfers and supplemented with young NBA talent.
Now 21-4 and 10-2 in conference, Kentucky trails only Auburn in the SEC standings. Tennessee sits third at 9-3, moving past Arkansas this weekend.
The Vols are in the middle of a mid-season retooling after losing Olivier Nkamhoua to injury. To this point though, they haven’t missed a beat. However, with Oscar Tshiebwe coming to town on Tuesday night, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, John Fulkerson, Uros Plavsic and Jonas Aidoo have their work cut out for them.
The stage doesn’t get much bigger, and I’m interested to see how these new-look Volunteers perform.