Tennessee was the team that knocked No. 13/11 Kentucky into its four-game rut in late January and early February. Perhaps the Volunteers will also be the team against which Kentucky got back on track.
Only time will tell, but Tuesday night’s 83-58 victory over Tennessee looked to be as close to the “old Kentucky” as the Big Blue Nation has seen in weeks.
“It was good,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of his team’s effort. “(Tennessee is) a team that beat us and beat us good. We could say it was a two-point game. It wasn’t a two-point game, it was a 10-point game that we tried to fight to get back in. They did whatever they wanted last time. I think you see us different defensively. I think you see us different in transition defense. I think you see the difference offensively. Some of the rebooting you’re seeing.”
Kentucky (21-5, 11-2 Southeastern Conference) hit 10 3-pointers in the first half against Tennessee (14-12, 6-7 SEC), the most it’s hit in any half all season long, and four more than it hit the entire game against the Volunteers on Jan. 24 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. That proved to be one of many stats that starkly contrasted with the Wildcats’ initial meeting with the Vols, which resulted in an 82-80 setback, their first in SEC action.
An 18-3 run in the first half put UK up by 16 points with more than eight minutes to play before intermission, but UT wouldn’t get any closer than 11 points the rest of the way, which is a promising development for a Kentucky team that has struggled mightily at maintaining leads in each of its past three victories.
“We were really just gosh awful and I think from Kentucky’s vantage point I think they probably got everything they wanted to get done,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
After committing 14 turnovers to go with its 14 assists against Tennessee in the two teams’ first go-round, Kentucky dished out 17 assists to just seven turnovers on Tuesday night, and two of those seven turnovers came in the final three minutes of the game.
Freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, who debuted a new hairdo that set social media a blaze pregame, had six assists and no turnovers in 32 minutes. Excluding the South Carolina game in which he played just eight minutes before going down with an ankle injury, Tuesday night’s win marked Fox’s first game all season without a giveaway. Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe equaled Fox’s six dimes and turned it over just one time.
“That’s what we have been working on,” Calipari said. “We were playing that way early, we got away from it, so it makes us look like a different team.”
“And we passed up shots to give a guy a shot,” he added later. “It’s great to see. Seventeen assists and only seven (turnovers).”
Barnes said the difference between the two teams’ meetings boiled down to the production UK got out of its four position. Barnes conceded that it would be tough to stop Malik Monk from getting his – he scored a team-high 20 points and grabbed a career-high eight rebounds – but that if the Vols were going to sweep the Cats they couldn’t let UK’s four go off.
Senior forward Derek Willis didn’t oblige, knocking down all four of his 3-point attempts in the first half to finish with 16 points. In Knoxville, Willis and freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel combined to score just six points on 2-of-11 shooting.
“One thing we did, we go back to our game at Knoxville, (Willis) and Gabriel were nonfactors and we talked about it all week,” Barnes said. “That’s what we can’t allow happen and we let it happen. Give them credit.”
In the paint, Kentucky won the battle of the boards by eight and outscored Tennessee 32-18. Compare that to the two teams’ first meeting, where UK outrebounded the undersized Vols by just one and were outscored in the paint 42-28.
The 28-point swing in points in the paint between the two games spoke to the Wildcats’ aggression, effort and decisiveness. Freshman forward Bam Adebayo grabbed 12 rebounds, marking his first game with 10-plus boards since Dec. 3 against UCLA.
“I thought our defense was as good as it’s been since the beginning of the year,” Coach Cal said. “I thought we crowded the lane a little bit, I thought we helped, we rotated. I was really happy about the rebounds. Bam got 12. That’s who he should be though. It’s who he should be.”
Calipari continued to reiterate after the game that the “reboot” he implemented will take time before it fully takes over, but in the three games since the reboot was installed Kentucky has progressively gotten better.
Tuesday’s game was Kentucky’s first against a team it had already faced this season, offering a clear picture as to how far the Cats have come in the past three weeks. The results were promising.
“I think this was a good step in the right direction,” Willis said. “It’s definitely been better than how we’ve been playing. I think everybody can agree with that. It was just a good game for us.”
Kentucky moves up to No. 13/11 in new polls