Kentucky Downs Vols in Big Blue Blowout
This was basketball as blood sport, less of a high-flying contest and more of a gladiatorial grudge match. For 31 minutes Tennessee stayed alive, but then the Wildcats unleashed the lions. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Tennessee's Brian Williams scored on a lay-up to slice Kentucky's lead to 45-39. On the Vols sideline, coach Bruce Pearl pumped his arms maniacally in an effort to inspire his team. But the team in blue responded instead. Kentucky outscored the Vols 29-6 over the final nine minutes of the game, turning what had been an ugly defensive battle into a blowout.
Along the way the Wildcats solidified their NCAA seeding, likely No. 2 overall behind Kansas, and advanced to Sunday's SEC Championship game against a surprising Mississippi State team. The happiest people in Nashville about the Wildcat win? Hotels, bars, and the scalpers standing underneath gray skies outside Bridgestone Arena. Just before tipoff of the noon start, upper level seats were going for $250 each.
Dive in for analysis, observations, and the like from the Kentucky-Tennessee game.
1. Kentucky played the best defense I've seen them play all season.
The Wildcats extended their defense and dared Tennessee's players to beat them off the dribble. For the most part, the Vols couldn't.
2. The Jimmy Dykes love affair with John Wall has reached Tim Tebow/Verne Lundquist love-affair levels.
The primary difference?
It took Verne four years to fall madly with Tim Tebow. Dykes? He's had three months to go all mopey on John Wall. Thank God CBS has the NCAA Tournament. If Dykes had Wall in the tournament I don't think he'd be able to stop scribbling "Mrs. John Wall."
3. The Wildcats did a great job forcing Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze to his left.
I've rarely seen a point guard played so aggressively to his dominant, right side. At times Eric Bledsoe was so far to Maze's right that it he looked like he was defending another man. In the last game between the two teams, Maze did an excellent job getting to the rim and shooting a running one-hander on the right side of the basket.
Today Maze made no such plays.
Credit to Kentucky's coaching staff for taking the gamble that Maze wouldn't go left even when offered the opportunity.
4. Eric Bledsoe may be the most important player on Kentucky's team as NCAA tournament play nears.
Because I think his tourney performance is the most uncertain. At this point you can be pretty comfortable what you're going to get from Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson. Sure, all three of those players might have bad games, but they're not going to completely disappear. But Bledsoe? No one has any clue about him. Today he was 5-8 from three and singlehandedly kept Tennessee at bay during their second half run.
How unexpected were Bledsoe's five threes in a single game?
He had just four threes in Kentucky's previous seven games, and he's only had 15 in SEC play all year, an average of less than one three a game. But if he can be a reliable weapon from three, then he helps to erase the only real offensive flaw of the Wildcats, inconsistent outside shooting.
We'll see whether this is a one game blip or something more telling, but take away Bledsoe's hot shooting and the rest of the Wildcats went just 3 of 14 from distance.
5. Tennessee was awful in transition opportunities.
Two weeks ago in Knoxville, the Vols exploited Kentucky not getting back on defense. This afternoon Kentucky got back on defense and the Vols squandered play after play going to the rim.
In particular J.P. Prince couldn't finish around the rim. As a result he disappeared as a Vol weapon.
6. Best scene from the Nashville bars Friday night?
How about Chicago Bear and Vandy grad Jay Cutler hanging out with former Kentucky star and No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch?
If any Bears fans just read this, they just broke out into a cold sweat.
7. DeMarcus Cousins took 17 free throws in just 26 minutes of court time.
Is there a player in the country that has a more inconsistent track record with officials? Or a player in the country that averages more free throws per minute on the court?
I don't think so.
Remember the trouble that officials had with calling Shaquille O'Neal's games when he was in college? I think Cousins offers similar difficulties. He's just so big, it's hard to tell how much contact he absorbs on offense and it's also hard to tell how much contact he delivers on defense.
As a result, you really don't have any clue -- and neither do Cousins or Coach Cal -- how he's going to be officiated each game.
8. The swiftness of the reaction to Melvin Goins' elbow to Cousins' groin surprised me.
While the elbow may have been intentional, it was impossible to tell for sure. And it was certainly less egregious than DeMarcus Cousins' elbow against Louisville.
If Goins did it intentionally, then he definitely should have been tossed, but I thought the footage was pretty inconclusive.
I was surprised at the decisiveness of the officiating action.
9. Does the video of DeMarcus Cousins holding up a tape measure to show his wingspan strike anyone else as ridiculous?
Who asked for this?
And who doubts that Cousins has a massive wingspan to begin with?
I blame Jimmy Dykes. Just like I blame Jimmy Dykes for that stupid airplane graphic that ESPN/ABC has been running for two months.
10. If anything, I think the hate between Bruce Pearl and John Calipari is underplayed as a media story.
It's relatively rare for two coaches at rival programs to genuinely despise one another. But if you doubted how much these guys hate each other watching this game should have erased all those doubts.
After seven games between the two men, Cal now has the 4-3 lead and a 2-1 advantage this season. And Big Blue fans chanting C-A-T-S in the local bars, couldn't be happier.
Nor could those scalpers downtown. This year, Christmas came in March for them.