Before Big Blue Nation gets all googly-eyed about stomping hated rival Tennessee on Monday ... well, truthfully, the chances of that happening are so slim, I won't even bother. Because, we all knew this was not the same Volunteers we expected to face. With their all-everything guard Chris Lofton watching cheerleaders from the bench rather than shooting daggers from 35 feet, this was a rather punchless Orange group. And while JaJuan Smith did his best to keep the Vols in it, amassing 25 points, after that there wasn't much help.
And yet, forgive me if I take a moment to exhale, after Kentucky (16-5, 5-2) used a 20-2 run, and some fine hustle and rebounding, to tame Tennessee for a much-needed 76-57 victory at Rupp Arena.
UT without Lofton is like salsa without any kick: hard to argue it's not glorified ketchup. And the results for coach Bruce Pearl have been pretty much the same -- a pair of losses without his star, and another defeat in which Lofton played only a few minutes. After the Vols' blazing start to the season, even the most optimistic Kentucky fan had circled this date on the calendar. Tennessee (14-7, 2-4) had beaten a hot Texas, Memphis and Oklahoma State. But even before Lofton injured his ankle, things were getting dicey in Pearl's World. Sunday's rout means the once-NCAA assured Volunteers have now dropped five of six, and have a hole to climb out of just to get to 8-8 in the conference, sort of the defined line under which only a true signature win or two can rescue someone's NCAA resume.
I'll admit I was surprised that Kentucky came out so flat, even if I was unsurprised the Vols came out so fired up. We've all seen enough teams rattle off a run as the momentum of trying to rob Kentucky of the home crowd keeps a visitor hopped up. But Tubby Smith's famous saying is that the most meaningless score in the game is the halftime score. He's certainly tested that theory a few times, but on this day, he was correct. While Tennessee tossed up prayers that went in (as well as unguarded threes), the Cats couldn't hit much in the first 20 minutes. And once that changed -- mainly thanks for freshman Jodie Meeks and junior Ramel Bradley finally canning a few from deep.
Joe Crawford's 15 points came well within the offense, and he forced up only a few bad shots. It was a good thing the shooters were hitting, because they didn't get much help from Randolph Morris, whose Greco-Roman post defense had the refs on him all afternoon.
But every time I hear a coach or player talk about how making shots brought them the win, I cringe a little. it's a rare game, you know, when making your shots isn't a key to victory. But on those rare occasions, the real key to a win is defense. For this bunch, certainly shooting better than 35% is a must. But for the team to function effectively -- and to really have any shot of glory this year -- it's going to come down to guarding people. It's Tubby's style, for better moreso than for worse, and it's what makes his teams' offense really click. Don't believe me? Believe Mr. Meeks:
"I do think it helped us a lot. It gave us an opportunity to make plays and really control the pace of the game. It led to offensive breaks and increased our confidence on both ends of the floor."The numbers certainly back that assessment up. After surrendering over 45% shooting in the first half, the Cats buckled down and held Tennessee to 30% in the second 20 minutes, cutting the UT percentage to 38% for the game. In addition, it was clear what Smith and company were harping on after the Georgia debacle last week. Kentucky owned the glass, dominating the Vols to the tune of a 42-27 edge. A special shoutout to Sheray Thomas, as the leader of the "Boo" Man Group was especially strong on the boards, grabbing three offensive rebounds (7 total), several at key times and with authority. The Mec from Quebec also dished out five assists, all without a turnover.
But the day, in many ways, belonged to Bradley, the inked-up, fired-up combo guard from Brooklyn. After starting out 1-for-5 from three-point range -- which continued a stretch of games in which the misses far outnumbered the makes for Bradley, he took the ball to the rack and that penetration opened up shots for Meeks and Bobby Perry. His spark even elicited the comment of the night from my friend and fellow Wildcat-obsessee, who noted simply, "Who's this Bradley guy?"
While it may give UK fans heart palpitations, as Bradley goes, so go the Wildcats, it would seem. In all his good games, the team thrives. The opposite also seems to be the case. Some of that is because Bradley can be a very effective scorer. He's a good shooter, if streaky, and when he hits the open shot, teams have to honor his range. That correlates directly to easier baskets inside for his teammates. As in the two prior losses, on Sunday, the real trouble for Bradley was his tendency to over-dribble. A pair of five-second calls made Tubby's eyes bulge, and earned Ramel a tirade on the pine.
But the same fire that seems to occasionally consume the man known as 'Smooth' also can get him back on track. For Kentucky's sake -- especially against bulky inside teams like Florida and Alabama that will try to pack it in and force the Cats to beat them with their non-Morris players -- Bradley's emergence is not only important, it's essential. Only Meeks can hit with the same back-breaking quality that Bradley can.
Against the Vols, Number 3 was smooth. He'll have to be for the Wildcats to continue to contend.