LEXINGTON, Ky. — With a little more than two minutes left Saturday night, the Kentucky student section started the old “overrated” chant, aiming it at the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers. Wildcats coach John Calipari personally shut it down, waving his arms and yelling, “No! No! Stop!”
“They’re not overrated,” Calipari said afterward. “They’re probably underrated.”
Cal’s reasoning for silencing the chant was sound: If Tennessee is overrated, it lessens the impact of the No. 5 Wildcats’ savage, 86-69 punking of the Volunteers. And Rick Barnes is a close friend. And, perhaps most importantly, Kentucky has to go to Knoxville in two weeks for a rematch and doesn’t need to give more payback ammo to a badly beaten team.
So you can understand why Cal didn’t want the Kentucky fans to say it. But I will.
Tennessee is oh-ver-rated.
The Vols shouldn’t have been No. 1 in the nation coming into Rupp Arena, and they sure won’t be when the new polls come out this week. Good team? No doubt. Great team? We’ll see.
It’s still wait and see with Tennessee. This program is a zero historically in March, and nothing that happened in a showdown game Saturday indicates that’s about to change dramatically this year.
That 19-game winning streak? Yeah, good stuff. But it was also accomplished against a run of really mediocre competition. The Volunteers have beaten zero ranked teams since Gonzaga on Dec. 9. They beat one, maybe two NCAA tournament teams — Alabama and Florida twice — and I’m not sure either the Gators or Crimson Tide really deserves to be in the field of 68.
Average Ken Pomeroy rating of those 19 Tennessee opponents: 81.5. Which means the Vols basically ran the table on the NIT field. Last time Tennessee played a true, high-quality opponent before Saturday night was in early December against the Zags.
Kentucky, meanwhile, played North Carolina on a neutral court, Louisville on the road, Auburn on the road, Mississippi State twice, Kansas and then LSU on Tuesday in Rupp Arena. The only loss in that run was to LSU, on a tip-in at the buzzer that shouldn’t have counted due to offensive goaltending.
Thus, you could understand why one team looked so much more prepared for a hard-edged battle than the other. Tennessee looked like a team that has gotten away with some slippage in performance because it hasn’t been playing teams capable of making it pay. That changed in a hurry Saturday.
“They dominated us every way we could be dominated,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “They handled us handily.”
Tennessee has been a greater-than-the-sum-of-its parts team. The Vols haven’t recruited five-star guys. They don’t have a lineup dotted with future NBA players. They’re relatively short, beatable on the glass and vulnerable defensively from the 3-point line.
Long, physical Kentucky exploited all those weaknesses. Sophomore forward PJ Washington shot jump hooks for days over the shorter players guarding him, on his way to another great night after a great decision to return to school: 23 points, five rebounds, two blocks, two steals. (“I’m hearing people call me and say, ‘Cal, he’s the most improved guy in the country,'” Calipari said.) The Wildcats were a plus-13 rebounding margin, pulling down 12 off the offensive glass. And they hit four 3-pointers in the first half, three by Keldon Johnson, to get the crowd of 24,467 roaring early.
“We were phonies tonight,” Vols forward Grant Williams told The Tennessean.
Kentucky turned it into a rout right out of the gate in the second half, pushing the lead as high as 24. The lead was double figures for the final 19 minutes and 12 seconds.
Calipari said the loss to LSU on Tuesday probably helped his team in this game. It ended a nine-game winning streak, but it makes sense.
“We needed it,” he said. “We’re not the same team we’ve been. Sometimes you’ve got to be knocked in the head to learn that.”
We’ll see whether Tennessee learns a similar lesson from this head knocking. Because the schedule does get tougher down the stretch, with games at LSU and Mississippi in February, Kentucky’s visit to Knoxville on March 2, and a trip to Auburn on March 9.
On this night, the scene was reminiscent of another time a Southeastern Conference team strutted into Rupp ranked No. 1. That was Florida in February 2003. The Gators were down 23 at halftime and lost by 15, force-fed a plate of humility by the Wildcats.
That Kentucky team went on to win the SEC and be the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before being upset in the regional final to Dwyane Wade and Marquette. The 2018-19 Wildcats may not be able to lock down the overall top seed, but they could be a No. 1 and wind up the most dangerous NCAA team not named Duke. The ceiling remains very high for Big Blue.
That ’03 Florida team never regained the swagger it brought into Rupp. It lost three more times in the regular season, in its first SEC tournament game and its second NCAA tourney game. The Gators, as it turned out, were overrated.
Tennessee was overrated this year as well. Now we’ll see whether the Volunteers can regroup and live up to the hype accrued while beating a bunch of nobodies for two months.
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