Column: Sobering Loss to Kentucky is What Vols Needed

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    (Photo via Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

    Tennessee played their worst game of the season on Saturday night, and Kentucky responded from a loss on Tuesday night and played arguably their best game of the season. What resulted was an embarrassing, sobering 86-69 loss for the top-ranked Volunteers in Rupp Arena.

    And that might’ve been exactly what the Vols needed right now.

    The Vols (23-2, 11-1) got taken down by 17 points by Kentucky (21-4, 10-2) in Lexington on Saturday night, and it wasn’t even that close for the majority of the second half. The Wildcats roared out to a 20-point lead to start the second half, then eventually extended that to a 24-point deficit.

    To Tennessee’s credit, they would go on a 13-0 run and cut that lead to just 11 points with 8:49 to go. But by that point, the damage had been done, and it was too little too late.

    Kentucky hadn’t played with that level of physicality and tenacity maybe all season, and it caught Tennessee off guard. They didn’t respond well to it at all. The Wildcats dominated the boards, out-rebounding the Vols 39-26, and they sealed off the paint on offense. Tennessee only totaled 20 points down low, while Kentucky scored 36 points in the paint.

    The way Tennessee played on Saturday wasn’t the type of Tennessee that Vol fans have grown accustomed to seeing. Don’t take my word for it, though. Tennessee’s players said the same thing.

    “I said it coming into the huddle. I told coach Barnes, this is the most selfish I have seen us play in three years,” Grant Williams said to reporters after the game. “I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was the environment or if it was just how guys were coming into the game. We didn’t execute what we wanted to do. … They out-physicaled us tonight. That’s not our identity. We have always been the tougher team.

    “For that to happen, it shows we were phonies tonight.”

    Williams wasn’t the only one to say that, though.

    “They outrebounded us, they out-toughed us, and the way we came out, the way we played, is not who we are,” Admiral Schofield said afterwards. “We can’t do anything about it. We’ve got to bite the bullet and just get better.

    “Honestly, I mean, the level I know that we can play at, the level that I know we play at consistently, we didn’t bring that tonight. I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t bring it either. Not here to make excuses or anything, but they outplayed us. They were the better team tonight.”

    Junior guard Jordan Bowden, who had his worst game of the season on Saturday night, also said the Vols just didn’t have it against Kentucky for whatever reason.

    “I feel like there was a point where we just hit a wall mentally and we just folded,” Bowden stated. “We hit a tired point in the first half, and we just didn’t push through like we normally do. So, we have to learn from that.”

    The Vols got flat-out embarrassed on Saturday night. Grant Williams called them “phonies” for the way they played against the Wildcats. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but Tennessee certainly got exposed. And the things they’ve been slacking on for the last few weeks finally came back to bite them because they played a high-quality opponent.

    Tennessee’s biggest issues this year in SEC play have been rebounding and guarding the three. Kentucky got hot from three early, making four of their first seven shots from distance. After that point, however, the Wildcats would only go on to make one of their next six three-pointers.

    So if it wasn’t the three-point shot that killed the Vols, that leaves one big aspect: Rebounding.

    Kentucky exerted their physicality in the paint, and it rattled the Vols early. You could also say that an inconsistent whistle from the officials from one half to the next also was a factor, but that wasn’t anywhere close to being the biggest issue.

    The Wildcats held the Vols to a season-low 26 rebounds, and it marked the third time in the Vols’ last four games that they’ve lost the rebounding battle. Against Florida and Missouri, the other two teams that out-rebounded Tennessee, it didn’t matter as much. Those two teams don’t have anywhere close to the same level of talent that Kentucky has, and they aren’t as physical of teams as the Wildcats can be.

    That lack of emphasis on rebounding finally hurt Tennessee. And it did so in a big way.

    “It’s crazy, because we talked about our rebounding and silly turnovers, they were going to cost us at some point, and look at us today,” Bowden explained. “We can’t let any team out-rebound us. We’re better than that, so we just have to learn from this.”

    Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said after the game that he’s been telling his team for several weeks now that their effort on the glass was going to get them exposed. Now, he has a game to point to as proof that he knows what he’s talking about.

    “We’ve been telling them for two and a half weeks now that we need to rebound the ball better,” Barnes said. “We haven’t, and there are good enough coaches in this league that see this type of stuff. We kept telling our guys that sooner or later it’s going to bite us, and it bit us.”

    Getting exposed like this isn’t ideal, especially when you’re the No. 1 team in the country. But from the way Barnes and his players talked after the game, it sounds like this type of game is exactly what the Vols needed moving forward.

    I’m not really a big proponent of saying a team needs to lose in order to refocus and adjust. You can get a scare and win and it still have a similar effect. But an absolute lights-out beating like this can have a jarring effect on a team, and it should do that for Tennessee. The Vols are much better than what they played like against Kentucky, and this game should serve as a wake-up call for them.

    It’s one bad loss, but it came in mid-February, not March. All of Tennessee’s goals — winning the SEC regular season, winning the SEC Tournament, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, winning the national title — are still on the table after this loss. They lost a battle, but the long war is still to be won.

    If you’re going to lose like this, better now than when you’re about to enter tournament play or once you’re actually in the NCAA Tournament.

    The Vols hadn’t played an opponent of Kentucky’s caliber in over two months. Tennessee’s last true high-quality opponent was Gonzaga, and that game was all the way back on December 9th. Between that game and Saturday’s contest, the Vols played 16 games. Of those 16 contests, eight of them came against teams with .500 or worse records right now, and none of those schools have more than 15 total wins at this point in the season.

    Saturday’s game was a glimpse into what March will look like, and Tennessee proved they aren’t ready yet. They let themselves get lulled into a false sense of security and thought they could just show up and play like they have against the Missouris, South Carolinas, and Texas A&Ms of the college basketball world and win against anybody. They were proven wrong on Saturday.

    But it’s better to learn this lesson now than in March like the Vols did last year. Now it’s time to learn from this and get ready for a brutal end to the regular season.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.