Heading into Saturday, Kentucky basketball was in a very dark place. There were so many questions, ranging from the players to the coaching staff. It seemed like they had given up in their loss to South Carolina last Tuesday. That wasn’t the case.
Tennessee came into Saturday’s tilt as an 11.5-point favorite and as a top five team in the nation. None of that mattered though as Kentucky went into Thompson-Boling Arena and knocked off the fifth ranked Volunteers.
Rick Barnes’ squad came out swinging as they jumped out to an 8-0 lead early in the game, but Kentucky fought back. After that point, Kentucky would outscore Tennessee 63-48 en route to a 63-56 victory.
From a basketball perspective, this was much needed. The Wildcats were in danger of falling to 1-4 in league play and plummeting towards the bottom of the SEC standings.
Things were much smoother for Antonio Reeves and C.J. Fredrick as they combined for 31 points, six rebounds, and six assists. Coach John Calipati is going to need this duo to continue this level of play if they want to be competitive this season. Outside of Oscar Tshiebwe, there aren’t many players on this roster that can go get a bucket when needed, and Fredrick and Reeves provided that Saturday.
Tie game … but not for long 😼 pic.twitter.com/FQ2A3SKGNY
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 16, 2023
Another positive of this game is how Kentucky dominated the glass. The Cats out rebounded the Vols by 20 rebounds. The most important thing is that they limited Tennessee to only one chance on the offensive end. When Tennessee missed a shot, Kentucky was grabbing the rebound. The offensive rebounding margin was Kentucky plus nine, with Tennessee only grabbing four. With Tshiebwe on your team, this is how Kentucky should control the boards, and they’re glad it came together this weekend.
Lastly, Kentucky made their free throws. One of the biggest bug-a-boos for Calipari’s team has been missed free throws. In previous games, they have missed free throws throughout the game but more importantly, they missed them when it mattered most. Against Tennessee, the Wildcats confidently stepped to the line and knocked down 22 of their 25 attempts from the charity stripe. They likely don’t win this game without the high-level free throw shooting. This was another massive question that might have resolved itself.
Obviously, the basketball side of things is important. However, what’s more important is that this is a game and games are meant to be fun. Until now, Kentucky had not looked like they were having fun. The players looked defeated, and so did the coaches.
Saturday, this changed. They were having fun and they were playing confidently. This game meant a lot to them, and it was noticeable on and off the court. This was personified in their post-game celebration in the locker room. This is a great sign going forward for a team that needed a much-needed pick-me-up after a week of turmoil.
🗣️ Road Kill pic.twitter.com/cfFWEUnNZA
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 14, 2023
A switch has seemingly been flipped. They might have figured out answers to some of their questions on the court, but more importantly, they are having fun again. They gained some momentum this weekend and need to start stacking wins as they try and rebuild their NCAA Tournament resume.