When the Vols last faced off against the Kentucky Wildcats up in Rupp Arena they were knocked from the top of the polls, handed their first SEC loss of the season, and beaten by seventeen points in a game that never felt that close. The Wildcats didn’t just beat the Vols, they bullied them, pushed them around, and embarrassed them. Tennessee players and coaches were left using words like selfish, phony, and flat to describe their performance. Vol fans and the media alike were left asking if Tennessee was the real thing just suffering an off night at a terrible time, or if the Rupp crowd chanting, “Overrated,” had it right. Tennessee had been punched in the mouth, staggered under the blow, and Kentucky had just kept punching. The Cats suddenly looked poised to earn a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, while the Vols weren’t sure where they might land.
What a difference two weeks makes.
In almost every, single facet of the game, the roles flipped in Thompson Boling Arena during the rematch. Tennessee came out and ensured that they were the more physical of the two teams, pounding the Cats down low on offense and defense. The Vols were badly out rebounded in Rupp, and though the Cats won the battle on the glass in Knoxville, the margin was only 38-36. Tennessee was stymied in Lexington, getting crushed in the paint by PJ Washington and the Wildcats. On his home floor, Grant Williams asserted his will down low, not only scoring himself in the paint, but creating opportunities for his teammates to drive and score. The Vols got back to their identity, played physical basketball, and ran their team through the low post, dominating in the paint.
That isn’t to say that the Vols had an offensive explosion, only Grant Williams and Jordan Bone managed double figures, but they did pour in 51 points combined. Lamonte Turner continued to have some shooting struggles, a solid game against Ole Miss aside. Jordan Bowden managed 9 points, and while he still continues a scoring slump, he was far more productive than his last several games. Admiral Schofield struggled to find his stroke on offense as well, but as he so often does, the points he did manage came at absolutely critical times. Schofield also stayed true to form by doing things other than scoring, coming up with seven rebounds, a pair of blocks, an assist, and a steal. Even Kyle Alexander, who fouled out again, this time in only twelve game minutes without scoring, came up with six rebounds and a block. Tennessee was much better on offense than they were in their last meeting with Kentucky, carried by Bone and Williams, but there was plenty of room for improvement on the offensive end of the floor. The defensive side of the floor, however, was a different story.
Rick Barnes had stated that he felt Tennessee’s best defensive game of the season came when the Vols managed to knock off Ole Miss in their last game in Oxford. While that was true at the time, what Tennessee did to the Wildcats in Thompson Boling was their best defensive outing of the season, by far. The Vols were swarming for the entire game. Much like what the Vols endured in Lexington, Kentucky didn’t appear to have a chance an easy, routine shot all night long. Every shot was contested. For that matter, most dribbles were contested. Tennessee played with the defensive intensity that has been missing for much of the season. The Big Orange defended the three-point line extremely well, clogged passing lanes, and harried Kentucky ball handlers all night long. After allowing the Cats to operate efficiently in Rupp, Tennessee forced Kentucky into seventeen turnovers. There were some Vols that struggled shooting the ball, but they more than made up for any struggles scoring with outstanding team and individual defense.
There were questions about Tennessee ever since the first Kentucky game, and the Vols looked out of sync in every game since. There were questions about intensity, especially on defense, after a sloppy win against Vanderbilt and a heartbreaking loss at LSU. While Tennessee failed to shut the door on Ole Miss when they had the chance, the defensive intensity that had never been quite right all season showed flashes of coming around. In the second matchup with the Wildcats, that intensity was present from early in the game and turned up to eleven for most of it. The Vols smothered the Cats to their lowest point total of the season and second lowest total of the Calipari era. A Volunteer team that defends at that level is a frightening matchup for any opponent in America. The tone for that defense and the highly efficient offense Tennessee displayed was set by the same player.
Jordan Bone was brilliant against Kentucky. There is no other way to describe his play. Struggling to play through the effects of the flu, Bone channeled a bit of Michael Jordan to have a Flu Game of his own. Bone poured in a career high 27 points against Kentucky while going 5-5 from three-point range. He also added three assists and three rebounds while playing razor sharp on the offensive side. The Cats had no answer to stay in front of Bone, as he drove the lane time and time again, leaving Wildcat defenders stumbling in his dust. As usual, Bone showed his ability to drive at full speed, which is full speed for one of the fastest players in all of college basketball, stop cold, elevate straight up, and bury mid-range shots. At times Bone and Grant Williams went into a classic two-man game on Kentucky, and with the tools both players possess, left the Cats without any answer. That said, Jordan Bone isn’t leading the discussion as the best point guard in America strictly for his offense. Bone grabbed two steals in the game, but he harried Kentucky for the entire game. He used his excellent speed to stay with Kentucky shooters as they switched and screened, staying with his man, bothering shots all night. He also positioned himself so that the Cats struggled to drive the lane, making Kentucky work to drive past him. More than just the best point guard in America, games like this are building a real case for Bone as a Player of the Year candidate in his own right.
This win means that Tennessee splits the regular season with the Wildcats. More than just a rivalry win, more than just a win over Kentucky, Tennessee answered all the questions that have been circling them since that ill-fated trip to Lexington, and now leave those same questions swirling around the Wildcats. The win also means that Tennessee keeps pace with LSU atop the SEC regular season standings. Tennessee controls their own destiny, as wins against Mississippi State and at Auburn would ensure the Vols at least a share of the SEC Regular Season Title, regardless of what happens with the Tigers. Tennessee has never won back to back SEC Titles of any kind in men’s basketball, so this is a chance for the Vols to make more history. Speaking of history, besting the Wildcats means that Tennessee remains perfect at home, with a chance to have the first ever undefeated home season in program history. Tennessee’s seniors also ensured with the victory that they will leave Knoxville without ever having lost to Kentucky in Thompson Boling Arena. The Vols can’t afford to have a hangover from this win, as a very good Mississippi State team comes calling on Tuesday night for Tennessee’s third game in six days, but this win was special. Champions have to find a way to get off the mat, and these Vols have championship aspirations. In a rematch against Kentucky, the Vols roared off the mat and got their revenge.
What a difference two weeks makes.