1. Matt Jones from Kentucky Sports Radio said on 3D earlier today that the atmosphere at Rupp has been among the worst that he’s experienced in his time covering Kentucky basketball. Tonight, the Rupp Arena crowd was slow arriving, and that’s being nice, and less than enthused at tipoff. Now, when you’re team almost loses to the worst team in Vanderbilt, at home mind you, then follows that up with an abysmal first half on the road at Mizzou I wouldn’t be thrilled to watch this team either. Trust me, throughout the first half I was 100 percent on their side in terms of lack of excitement to watch Kentucky play basketball. To their credit, on a few defensive plays, namely Wenyen Gabriel’s block on Admiral Schofield and Nick Richards block on Grant Williams, the crowd came alive and was exactly what I expected when I made the three-hour trip up from Nashville.
2. Tennessee has been among the best in college basketball on the defensive end this year. A trademark of Rick Barnes program, the Vols came into tonight ranking 6th in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom. In the first 9:09 of the first half. the Volunteers held the Wildcats to a 1 of 9 shooting start and forced four turnovers, never allowing Kentucky to feel comfortable on the offensive end. Through 22 games, UT has held opponents to an average of 28.2 points during the first half, tonight the Vols held Kentucky just below the average at 26.
3. For as great as Tennessee’s first half defense was their offense didn’t equal the effort. Tennessee shot 38 percent from the floor and 3 for 11 from three, all three makes coming from Lamonte Turner. Also, six turnovers added to the offensive troubles. Turner was the lone bright spot in the half, scoring a team-high 11 points on 4 of 6 shooting. Grant Williams and Schofield combined for 10 of the Vols 27 first half points on 3 of 10 shooting with 4 of Williams 6 points coming from the line.
4. Over the first 11:49 of the first half each team combined for 24 total points. During the remaining 8:11, the two teams combined for 29 points to rescue what was on it’s way to being one of the worst first halves in major college basketball this season. Quade Green did most of the damage for Kentucky, scoring 10 points while going a perfect 4 of 4 from the floor in the half.
5. Tennessee was fortunate midway through the second half not to be down by more than they were as they went on a 6:25 without a field goal. Kentucky was only able to hold a 40-37 lead until Schofield’s layin ended the drought, bringing UT back within one at 40-39. Jordan Bowden became the only Vol not named Lamonte Turner to make a three with 9:37 left. Bowden’s steal on the ensuing possession gave Tennessee back the lead with 9:17 to play.
6. Tennessee has made their mark on this college basketball season with their defense. That defense showed up in the final minute of the game when they needed it most. Following a missed three-pointer by Schofield with 1:07 left the Vols found themselves down 58-56 and on defense. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lost control of the ball driving into the lane and on the ensuing possession, Turner hit his fourth and biggest three of the game to put UT up 59-58 with 26 seconds left. Another turnover by Gilgeous-Alexander led to a runout and dunk by Schofield. Tennessee fouled Gilgeous-Alexander up three with 0.8 left. The freshman point guard made the first and intentionally missed the second but the rebound fell into the hands of Schofield completing the season sweep of the Wildcats.
7. The conversation heading into the week has been about whether Tennessee could find themselves as the 4th No. 1 seed once the NCAA Tournament starts. ESPN’s BPI had the Vols as the highest percentage team outside of locks Virginia, Villanova and Purdue. Well, this was certainly a good start. The win puts the Vols at 18-5 overall and 8-3 in the SEC. The win also qualifies as a quadrant 1 win, as part of the new selection committee criteria, and highlights just how great the turnaround has been for Barnes and his program in Year 3. It should also be noted that UT won this game with Grant Williams only scoring a single field goal. The sophomore forward scored 8 of his 10 points from the line but just 1 of 3 from the field. Next up, a trip to Tuscaloosa. Win that and the conversation of one seed may become more than just that.
8. For Kentucky, the headache continues for head coach John Calipari. The Wildcats way of the one-and-done has backfired this season as some of the talent brought in hasn’t lived to expectations, while the other top talent is in Durham, NC and Tuscon, AZ. I won’t count Kentucky out of being able to turn this season around but I don’t see how after the past three games, which succeeded what we thought to be a defining moment in a double-digit comeback at West Virginia, that is at all possible. Doubt them at your own peril, but who would be surprised to see this team lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament?