As good as Kentucky looked throughout much of the first half on Tuesday night, they looked like the polar opposite version of themselves in their 81-73 defeat at the hands of Tennessee.
Despite the Cats allowing the Vols to shoot 57 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, including a perfect 7-for-7 start for forward John Fulkerson, Kentucky got a hot 14-point start from Tyrese Maxey and shot 16-for-29 from the floor themselves on their way to an 11-point cushion at the break.
Then, as everyone saw, the wheels fell off the wagon and then the wagon ended up in a ditch, as the Vols shot 50 percent in the second half and scored 50 points in the second half to upset the Cats, while holding the Cats to just 33 percent shooting.
As bad as the offense looked after such a productive first half for Kentucky during the dreadful second half, the much more concerning part for the Cats was letting the 302nd-best 3-point shooting team shoot 8-of-18 from long range while being a -5 in the rebounding battle (31-26).
Some of it was just simple stuff where the wheels fell off for Kentucky. The defensive letdown is the worst part, IMO.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
For example, Maxey gets hit with a Fulkerson screen, Richards hedges too hard watching the ball and Montgomery is forced from the help side, but it’s too late. pic.twitter.com/ItbiyleUBr
Kentucky’s bigs were completely outplayed by Fulkerson all night long. On this possession, Kentucky goes to the side pick-and-roll on the right wing and Nick Richards hedges it too hard, allowing a free lane for Fulkerson to roll and forcing EJ Montgomery to rotate over, but he was too late and fouled for the first of a couple three-point plays in the second half for the Vols.
This is just horrific for a couple reasons:— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
1) What in the hell are you doing showing this Calipari presser soundbite from Saturday in the middle of the game, ESPN?
2) What in the hell is Kentucky’s defense doing to where they completely forget the inbounder on a BLOB set? pic.twitter.com/A0lbJK5who
I don’t know what was more frustrating for the Big Blue Nation on this particular play: the fact that ESPN was having an irrelevant conversation about John Calipari’s post-game press conference satire-filled discussion about the Evansville loss from this past weekend or the fact that Kentucky just completely forgot about the inbounder on this particular baseline out of bounds set?
A double oh-no for Hagans here, missing a shot at the rim and then when Kentucky actually has everybody back on a 4-on-5, completely forgets about Pons, who trails the play after falling on the other end and steps right into one of his three triples on the night. pic.twitter.com/oGFATNcLL3— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
Ashton Hagans is the latest to draw the fury of some members in the BBN, which ... here’s a reminder before we dive into this: stop tweeting at athletes. It’s weird. It’s awful. You’re a troll. Stop doing it.
As for this sequence, Tennessee had already trimmed Kentucky’s once-17-point-lead down to just 10 and here, Hagans misses another shot at the rim and the Cats actually have everybody back here, but Hagans completely forgets Yves Pons, who trails the play and steps right into an open 3.
This can’t happen either. Don’t watch the ball. Watch Maxey’s head watching the ball. Then, watch Bowden just curl around the wing and step into a 3 where Maxey fouls him for his second foul in the matter of a few seconds. pic.twitter.com/8BFHlYlsES— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
This is simple basketball and it was costly here, as Tyrese Maxey fouls Jordan Bowden on a 3-point attempt because he got caught watching the ball. Bowden curls up top from the left corner and switching places on the floor with Josiah-Jordan James. Maxey falls asleep and when he’s tardy on contesting Bowden’s shot, he fouls him, leading to two of three makes from the line.
Hagans dribbles into nothing but orange jerseys for a turnover and then Sestina gets completely caught in no man’s land with James coming down the floor and Fulkerson in the middle lane. Fulkerson gets behind, James delivers a great pass and Sestina fouls, plus one. pic.twitter.com/RX4piJcNQG— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
With the lead now down to five, Hagans dribbles into two defenders without much of a plan, leading to another transition opportunity that they convert. Nate Sestina gets caught here because nobody was in position to stop the ball and Fulkerson running down the middle of the floor. Sestina gets stuck, allowing Fulkerson to basically run right past him and score, plus a foul.
Total miscommunication with KBJ and Hagans as Maxey and Richards switch off the Fulkerson screen.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
Maxey switched Pons onto Brooks, who helped Maxey on the Fulkerson block touch, but Tennessee had two bodies on the weak side with just Hagans defending. pic.twitter.com/3anbl4uqGD
Tennessee takes their first lead in the second half because of patience in the possession and Kentucky doubling Fulkerson, leading to an open look for James.
Fulkerson sets a high ball-screen for Bowden, leading to switch with Richards and Maxey, who already switched with Keion Brooks Jr. off an off-ball screen from Pons. Bowden delivers a pass to Fulkerson, KBJ slides over to help Maxey, which leaves Hagans all by himself with two bodies to defend on the weak side.
James actually points to Pons in the corner when Fulkerson looks to pass out of the double and Hagans slides over to try and defend that pass, but he goes across the court to James, who splashes home the 3.
This was one of the backbreaking sequences late. After Hagans missed a wide-open 3 & Montgomery stepped out saving it, Tennessee calls a TO and then runs this set where Fulkerson sets a backscreen for Vescovi to bring Montgomery off the help side again. Pons cashes home the shot. pic.twitter.com/LleabW4baS— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
Santiago Vescovi makes this play happen for Tennessee out of a timeout. Rick Barnes called a hammer set for the Vols here (that Jimmy Dykes pointed out on the ESPN broadcast), but Quickley got around the backscreen from Pons to take away the pass to the right corner. Vescovi improvises and delivers an open look for Pons, who drains the shot.
Even when Kentucky played good defense in some instances during the second half, it didn’t matter. (This will be a trend over the next couple of clips here.)
Here’s the second of the three plays late that ended Kentucky’s win streak. Instead of putting a body on Pons, Richards tries to stay in front of Fulkerson while Montgomery comes off Pons to help contest, leaving Pons wide the hell open for the first of two dagger putbacks. pic.twitter.com/ci4nbQ0HWS— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
Kentucky plays good defense again here with Tennessee trying to burn out the clock, but as Fulkerson drove on Richards, EJ Montgomery seemingly slid over and off of Pons to contest Fulkerson’s shot (a miss), but it left Pons wide open for an easy putback make.
Again, Kentucky plays good defense, forcing a bad shot from James, but Richards completely fall asleep and Fulkerson tips the shot to keep it alive for James, who puts it back and seemingly ices away a shocking win for UT. pic.twitter.com/Jx2eHF6znX— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) March 4, 2020
The Vols iced the game away here after Maxey tipped the ball away from James, forcing a tough shot attempt late in the shot clock, but Richards doesn’t put a body on Fulkerson, who tips the miss up for grabs and James puts it back to give Tennessee a six-point advantage.
Sometimes, the ball doesn’t bounce your way and tensions can occur, but allowing the 109th-ranked offense in the KenPom ratings before Tuesday night to score 50 points in one half is unlike the Kentucky we’ve seen as of late. The Cats have their concerns with their offensive ruts, but making simple defensive mistakes like they did against the Vols could lead to an early exit from Nashville and the tournament that truly matters.
Tuesday was truly a sky-is-falling moment for some in the BBN, but the ‘Cats get a chance to bounce back to close the regular season on Saturday against Florida and then get virtually a week off to refresh before their first game in the SEC Tournament.
Plus, 16 bad minutes shouldn’t erase the progress this team’s made over the last month-plus. They’ve gone from ‘eh, are we sure they’re good’ to ‘they may win this whole thing.’ A bad second half shouldn’t erase all of the optimism that surrounded the Cats before Tuesday, even if does raise some concerns.