Tennessee started hot on Saturday night at Rupp Arena and never really looked back. The Volunteers jumped out to a quick ten point lead in the opening minutes, and that hot shooting never cooled off. Kentucky’s swiss-cheese defense helped throughout the night, as Rick Barnes was able to scheme up several sets to generate some easy buckets.
It was nice to see coming off of a dreadful performance at home against South Carolina, where Tennessee was only able to score 59 points. It was the Dalton Knecht show again against the Gamecocks, but that changed in a big way against Kentucky.
Finally, we saw Josiah-Jordan James come to life once again. James had a hot start to the year, but tailed off hard shortly after. We hadn’t seen James assert himself on the offensive end in several weeks, seemingly taking a backseat to the Dalton Knecht show.
On Saturday, James put up 18 shots and hit half of them on his way to 26 points.
“We told the guys is that we’re not going to sit around and watch Dalton do it,” Rick Barnes said after the Kentucky win. “We’ve got too many good players. And I said we’re not going to do that. And I told those guys, simple, we want you to do what we do.”
On James specifically, Barnes noticed an uptick in his practice performance.
“He’s been a huge part of this program from the time he walked on campus,” Barnes said of James. “And what I love about him, and I’ve said it before, when Jordan (Gainey) was going through a little bit of a slump, he struggled in practice. But the last two days, we’ve had some really good work in practice.”
Santiago Vescovi and Jonas Aido added 11 points each. Zakai Zeigler had a massive bounceback game, pouring in 26 points along with 13 assists. Knecht was limited to a measly 16 points.
We’ve been waiting to see Tennessee put all the pieces together and find that next level. This performance was as close to we’ve seen to that.
“Obviously (Knecht) can go do it,” Barnes said. “And there’s some games, and will be some other games this year, where he’ll do some of that. But again, I also think Kentucky did a nice job guarding. And as the season goes on, he’s going to have to deal with that.
“And all this is new to (Knecht). And as he continues to grow, like he already has, he’s got a chance to get so much better. But what I think he also more than anything is that his teammates, they believe in him. But they also want him to continue to get better like they get better. And he will because he’s a worker.”
Tennessee needed that one. JJJ needed to see the ball go through the rim a few times. Zeigler needed a bounceback night. Vescovi needed to continue to work forward like he’s been doing. Overall, this group just needed to flush a really bad night away against South Carolina. On the road, in perhaps the toughest environment in the SEC, they did that and then some.
The Volunteers left no doubt and reminded us all what a finished product could look like. Now if they could just find a little consistency...