It is never, ever a bad thing to defeat the Tennessee Volunteers in any sport, but particularly in basketball, where they own the distinction of having defeated the Kentucky Wildcats more times than any other SEC team. So a win over Tennessee is sweet, whether it be by 1 in triple-overtime or 8 in regulation.
Outstanding game by the Volunteers. They absolutely dominated us inside, and I would've bet a weeks pay that wouldn't happen in Rupp Arena. The Vols did an awful lot of good things today, particularly Jarnell Stokes. But two things hurt them, comparatively speaking: Free throw shooting (and they shot 70%, but it still hurt them) and 3-point shooting, where they were a loathsome 2-13. Take heart, Tennessee fans — we know a thing or two about losing games for those reasons.
Kentucky, once again in an extremely physical contest, continued to show that they are no shrinking violet, and unlike last season's team and even the 2011-12 team at this point, are absolutely willing to mix it up physically and have no fear of contact whatsoever. This team may be even more physical that the 2009-10 squad, but I'm not quite willing to make that an unqualified pronouncement quite yet. That was a very physical team from guards to center, perhaps none more so than Eric Bledsoe.
Be that as it may, this was a solid rebound against a quality basketball team after a heartbreaking last-second loss to Arkansas in Fayetteville. It doesn't help at all that Arkansas fell on the road to Georgia today, and Baylor lost to Oklahoma at home. Ouch, RPI.
Tennessee crushed Kentucky on the offensive glass. I never would have expected that. I thought it would be close, and that we could even lose, but the margin was 54% to 27% - straight- up doubled us up.
On the other hand, UK turned the ball over only 8 times (13% of possessions), and the Vols thoughtfully turned it over 12 times (19.5% of possessions), which helped take the punch out of the offensive rebounding.
I have been saying for a long time that free throw shooting would come around, but today it came around in a big way. UK shot 96% from the line on 24 attempts. Combined with 44% from 2 and 44% from 3, that makes you a very, very efficient team. The result was 1.2 points per possession, and that is almost impossible to beat. Let's all hope this is not just a one-off.
The team showed us more grit today. When Tennessee made a run in the second half, the Wildcats refused to wilt and immediately seized control of the game.
The continued slow starts are alarming, particularly the way it happened today — Kentucky looked disinterested in the game and broke down repeatedly, giving Tennessee easy shots. Not cool.
Overall, this was a game Kentucky won where they didn't play great defense. They weren't awful, but when you allow a visitor more than 1 point per possession, you aren't getting the job done. Tennessee had 1.07 points/possession.
First, the stats, courtesy of Kenpom.com:
Andrew Harrison's line was unbelievable, particularly the free throw shooting and zero turnovers. You can't play this game any better than that. I would have loved to see a few more assists, but — 10-10 from the line? Game ball, Andrew. You most definitely deserve it.
Julius Randle had the quietest 18 points in history, and only 2 rebounds? What the heck, over? He did have four assists, but also four turnovers. Randle seems to always have 4 or 5 turnovers, but he contributed to the success at the line shooting a perfect 5-5, plus he made his first 3-pointer of the year.
James Young had a quiet game offensively, but I thought he did a good job on Jordan McRae, holding him under his average. His 2-5 3-point shooting was very good, but he didn't take a single free throw, the first time all year I can remember that happening.
Aaron Harrison also had a good game, and I was tempted to make this a Harrison twins game ball. I thought that the team was much better when Aaron was in the game.
Willie Cauley-Stein just didn't have it at all today, very much like the Arkansas game on Tuesday. He was 0-5 from the field including 3 missed layups, and failed to show up on the glass. His man had a career day against him, and unlike the rest of the 'Cats, the physicality both today and at Arkansas seemed to be a factor. I hope he turns that around.
Fortunately, Dakari Johnson was there to pick up the slack. This was Dakari's best game as a Wildcat, and even though he only had 4 points, he made some nice passes, got some rebounds,and played tough defense inside. I really liked what I saw from him today.
Jarrod Polson was great. Pay no attention to his quiet line, he was not a defensive liability and ran the team with confidence when he was in. He really seems to have a calming effect on the team, and that's what a senior will do for you.
Dominque Hawkins did what he always does, but just a bit less of it.
Alex Pothress did not have a great game. He had trouble with his shooting, missing two wide-open 3-pointers badly, but he did play fairly solid defensively, leading the team with 2 blocks.
I'm very happy with the win. There are plenty of reasons to be critical, particularly of the defense, but Kentucky continues to show that they are learning how to win basketball games and learning to play as a team. No, they are not perfect in any way, particularly as a team on offense, where they rely an awfully lot on one-on-one action to score. That may wind up being the thing that keeps them from getting #9 this season, as I still feel like I am watching way too much dribbling into traffic and too little sharp ball movement.
Having said that, it is still early in the season, and they are getting better every game in some meaningful way. In my view, they are still a long way from being a championship-caliber team, but they are inching their way toward that goal. The big question seems to be, "Are there enough games in the season for them to get there?"
I don't know, and neither do you. I guess we'll just have to wait and find out.