Tennessee basketball’s win over Kentucky is a blueprint others will try to follow

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To me, this whole “toughness” thing has become a cliche. You hear coaches use it all the time. We have to get tougher, they say. We have to play tougher. Claiming the opponent was tougher and more physical is a common excuse after a loss. Too often a convenient one.

Tuesday night in Knoxville, however, the shoe fit. We’re talking Kentucky’s 76-63 loss to the revenge-minded Tennessee Volunteers. Payback was in play. With the Vols determined to avenge that 107-79 drubbing they received from their border rival at Rupp Arena one month before, the Cats got rattled. Then they got rolled.

Three minutes into the contest, UK Coach John Calipari was hit with a technical foul for objecting to a call against center Oscar Tshiebwe. (Cal had a legitimate beef.) Less than three minutes later, Tennessee’s John Fulkerson stumbled into the UK bench, setting off a skirmish between the two teams that ended with Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler and UK strength coach Robert Harris being assessed technical fouls. That’s right, the strength coach.

Its flames fanned, the Vols went on a 17-1 run. A 17-15 Kentucky lead became a 32-18 Tennessee advantage. After shooting a blistering 67.9 percent against the Vols on their home court, the Cats felt the Thompson-Boling chill. Ten minutes passed without a made field goal by the visitors. Talk about tough. It’s tough to win a game that way.

It’s also tough to win when a key offensive weapon is playing hurt. TyTy Washington gave it a go Tuesday. But after suffering a leg injury against Florida last Saturday, UK’s freshman star clearly wasn’t himself. Washington scored 28 points in the Rupp romp. He scored four points in the rematch before pulling up lame with 19:15 left. After hobbling to the Kentucky sideline, Washington punched the seat of his chair in frustration.

“If I had it to do over again I would not have played TyTy,” Calipari said afterward.

Beyond that, a theme is emerging. It began after Kentucky spanked Kansas 80-62 in Lawrence as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The next outing, Vanderbilt got physical with Calipari’s club. To a degree, the strategy worked. UK center Oscar Tshiebwe picked up two flagrant fouls in frustration. And the Commodores hung close, before losing 77-70.

South Carolina tried a similar strategy, but Frank Martin’s Gamecocks lacked the athletes to make it work. Tennessee did not. Since that loss at Rupp, Rick Barnes’ club had won seven straight conference games. Lineup changes fueled the turnaround. Barnes started 7-footer Uros Plavsic in the post along with 6-10 freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield in the frontcourt and brought the 6-9 Fulkerson and 6-11 freshman Jonas Aidoo off the bench.

Tshiebwe scored 13 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for his 19th double-double on the season. He made just five of 15 shots, however. Four of his shots were blocked. And with Oscar bothered near the basket, the Vols were free to concentrate on Kellan Grady on the perimeter. UK’s sharpshooter never found a rhythm. He was 2-of-9 from the floor, including 2-of-6 from three-point range.

Tennessee’s Josiah-Jordan James dunks against Kentucky on Tuesday night in Knoxville. The Wildcats were unable to recover after a 17-1 Volunteers run in the first half and lost 76-63.
Tennessee’s Josiah-Jordan James dunks against Kentucky on Tuesday night in Knoxville. The Wildcats were unable to recover after a 17-1 Volunteers run in the first half and lost 76-63.

“They punched us in the mouth,” Calipari said, “and we didn’t do the same to them.”

Not literally, of course. Toughness on Tuesday didn’t mean fisticuffs. It meant boxing out properly, holding your spot on screens, getting to the right spot at the right time, keeping your poise in a hostile environment. In all areas, the Cats fell short.

Tuesday’s loss wasn’t a surprise. At 10-3, the Vols are tied with the Cats for second place in the SEC standings. UT is a good team, playing well and with a purpose. What was surprising, and a bit disconcerting, was to see Kentucky get knocked around. “It was a bump and grind kind of game,” Calipari said afterward.

It was a game where toughness mattered. Tennessee was tougher. So now Big Orange has established a blueprint to beating Big Blue, one others will try to duplicate. And one this Kentucky team will have to change.

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