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Kentucky upsets No. 10 Tennessee to move closer to NCAA tournament bid

 Charles Vaughan   in Basketball

On the backs of their ironmen starters and the frenzied Rupp Arena crowd, the Kentucky Wildcats knocked off No. 10 Tennessee Saturday afternoon by a score of 66-54. 

Still missing CJ Frederick and Sahvir Wheeler, UK was forced to play its starting five for a whopping 86.8% of the team’s total minutes. Kentucky, completing a season sweep of UT, improved to 18-9 overall (9-5 SEC), while Tennessee dropped to 20-7 (9-5). 

UK forward Chris Livingston finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, recording his first career double-double. Star center Oscar Tshiebwe scored 16, pulled down 7 boards, and made 10 out of his 11 free throw attempts. Guard Cason Wallace racked up 16 points - his first double-digit scoring performance since February 7 - and led the team with six assists. Forward Jacob Toppin dropped 11 points on 50% shooting. 

The Wildcats, despite getting just 26 minutes from their bench, outrebounded Tennessee throughout the game and were significantly more accurate from the field.

Tennessee got big days from guards Santiago Vescovi and Jahmai Mashack, who scored 17 and 16, respectively. However, no other Vol scored more than 8. 

Dynamic guard Zakai Ziegler shot just 2-9 from behind the arc and turned the ball over multiple times. Poor three-point shooting was a theme for UT; guard Tyreke Key shot 0-4 from deep, forward Oliver Nkamhoua shot 0-3, and even Vescovi went 3-8. Tennessee, faced with Kentucky’s frontcourt size, also felt the absence of starting forwards Josiah Jordan-James and Julian Phillips

Playing in front of a raucous home crowd, the Wildcats jumped out to an early lead. Kentucky’s defense clearly affected the Volunteers - Tennessee couldn’t get clean looks inside and went just 1 for 11 from the field during the opening eight minutes. Neither team was in the greatest offensive rhythm, but Kentucky was able to manufacture a 10-2 lead by the time the 12 minute mark hit.

Tennessee made a miniature comeback, at one point cutting their deficit to four, but Kentucky quickly crushed any resistance. In the final minutes of the first period, Kentucky contested nearly every shot Tennessee took, while the Volunteers couldn’t stop the Wildcats from getting  paint penetration. With about six minutes left before the break, a huge Tshiebwe dunk sparked an 18-9 UK run that gave the Wildcats a massive 39-19 halftime lead.

The second half was more competitive, but Kentucky had built such a cushion that it didn’t matter. Near the end of the game, Tennessee cut their deficit to eight points, but it was too little, too late. The Volunteers never got within striking distance, and the Wildcats coasted to a crucial victory.

Holding onto Hope

Exactly one week ago, Kentucky walked off the Stegeman Coliseum floor having just lost to Georgia, a team sitting at 124th in the NET rankings. The defeat dropped the Wildcats out of most tournament projections, and their postseason hopes seemed slim to dead. But UK, recognizing their desperate situation, has fought their way back into relevancy. 

Kentucky’s Wednesday road win over Mississippi State was impressive, but Saturday's victory could prove to be season-saving. 

After their win in Starkville, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected the Wildcats as one of the “Last Four Teams In” the NCAA tournament. He emphasized how precarious the Wildcats’ situation was and wrote that Kentucky “likely needs to beat Tennessee to stay in the projected field.” 

This afternoon’s result has given UK more breathing room. Tennessee is an elite win - they are a Quad 1 team, #3 in the NET rankings, and #4 in KenPom - one that might even catapult UK off of the bubble. Most analysts agree that Kentucky’s current seed would be somewhere between 9 and 11.

The Cats aren’t out of the water yet, however. They have four games left in the regular season - Florida, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas. It’s hard to forecast exactly how much leeway Kentucky has. Winning three of their remaining games would likely put them in the tournament, while winning two would leave them somewhere at the edge of the field.

The Wildcats’ best-case tournament scenario is likely a nine or even an eight seed, depending on how the field shakes out. Their worst-case scenario - outside of missing the tournament - is an 11 seed and a First Four play-in game in Dayton. 

What This Means for Tennessee 

Tennessee still has grand postseason aspirations, but this is a confusing, disappointing loss. Not only was UT swept by Kentucky for the first time in eleven years, but the Vols have now dropped four games to unranked teams in February alone. 

These Volunteers still sit at #4 in KenPom, still have the country’s best defense, and will still be a very legitimate national title contender come March. With that being said, these defeats are starting to have very real effects on Tennessee’s tournament seeding.

On Saturday morning, the bracket committee revealed that they currently have Tennessee as a 3 seed, despite NET and KenPom rating them as a 1 seed. This was even before factoring in their loss to Kentucky. The Volunteers are clearly one of the best teams in the country, but their resume has suffered so much that it’s hard to imagine them being seeded at 1. 

Their recent win over AP #1 Alabama will help keep them afloat, but Tennessee could very realistically be looking at a 4 seed if they don’t take the rest of their schedule seriously.

Freshman Excellence

Despite having multiple fourth-year seniors on their roster, including the reigning National Player of the Year, Kentucky was led today by two 19-year-olds.  

The uber-talented freshman Chris Livingston, whose minutes have slowly increased as conference play has progressed, played the best game of his young college career. Against a ferocious Volunteer defense, the 6′ 6″ forward lived around the rim, scoring five second-chance points and drawing four fouls. Livingston was the best rebounder on the court today, finishing with 10 boards and even pulling one down over his teammate Tshiebwe. He scored 12 points, shot 80% from the field, and was named KenPom’s game MVP for the first time this season.

Livingston, who didn’t get much playing time early in the year as he struggled to find a role, seems to have at last developed the confidence to be a major contributor to this team. He’s now played thirty or more minutes in four straight games and has been effective in each. In his postgame interview, John Calipari stated that when CJ Frederick comes back he’s going to be “fighting for minutes” with Livingston.

Freshman guard Cason Wallace also had an impact that cannot be underestimated. Wallace, trusted by Calipari to be his primary point guard, turned in one of his more complete games as a Wildcat. He scored 16 points, but his real impact came in his passing and playmaking. Wallace dished out six assists and seemed comfortable and cerebral with the ball in his hands. At one stretch during the middle of the game, he went over thirty minutes without a turnover. 

In Kentucky’s earlier win over Tennessee, the Wildcats almost exclusively relied on their upperclassmen - Wallace was held scoreless, while Livingston scored six but turned the ball over five times. Their performances in this game exhibit how much the UK freshmen have grown. With Antonio Reeves struggling in the game Wallace and Livingston were tasked with spearheading the offense against Tennessee’s #1-ranked defense, and they led their team to dominance.

Oscar Tshiebwe was also excellent, causing Tennessee headaches with his size and tenacity inside. He was fouled six times and, despite not finishing with any blocks, affected Volunteer shots throughout the game.

Shooting Struggles

In the first sixty seconds of the game, Zakai Ziegler and Jahmai Mashack each missed an open three. This would foreshadow the rest of Tennessee’s evening - the Volunteers would end up shooting an abhorrent 6-27 from beyond the arc, or 22.2%. It’s not that they didn’t get good looks - Kentucky played solid perimeter defense, but the Vols generated open threes throughout the game - the Volunteer shooters just couldn’t bury them. Tennessee also shot just 4-14 (28.6%) from the free-throw line, following a concerning recent trend.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, when asked if he could explain the Vols’ free-throw woes, simply responded “I can’t.” He was also asked about the absence of starters Josiah Jordan-James and Julian Phillips, and stated that “[Tennessee] had enough. We brought enough guys here to win this game.” Despite the lack of depth in the frontcourt, Barnes was adamant that the starters’ injuries were not the reason the game was lost.

This script is reminiscent of Tennessee’s earlier loss to Kentucky, in which the Vols shot 3-21 from three and just 70% from the free-throw line. 

What’s Next

Kentucky now gears up for an away matchup at Florida on Wednesday. The Wildcats will then return home for a two-game homestand against Auburn and Vanderbilt before finishing the season on the road in Fayetteville.

Tennessee plays Texas A&M in College Station on Tuesday. The Vols will be met with home games against South Carolina and Arkansas before they close out the year with a road game at Auburn.