Maybe the preseason AP Top 25 poll was right after all.
Three months after Kentucky debuted at No. 2 in the country — and subsequently lost by 34 points to Duke in its season-opener — the Wildcats are indisputably playing like a national championship contender and the team that many media members believed the Wildcats could be before the season.
The No. 5-ranked Wildcats defeated No. 1 Tennessee 86-69 in Lexington Saturday night and there may not be four teams better than Kentucky right now as the regular season enters the home stretch of conference play.
Tennessee entered Rupp Arena on a 19-game winning streak and having earned the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll for the fourth consecutive week. But the Volunteers were 3.5-point underdogs at tip-off, according to the Vegas Insider Consensus, and the Wildcats played like the better team out of the gate.
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Tennessee is as big (with an average height of 6-6) and experienced (average experience of 2.1 years) as any national championship contender this season and its rotation certainly passes the eye test from a physical standpoint.
But it was Kentucky that established itself as the aggressor, beating Tennessee at its own game.
The Volunteers entered Rupp Arena with the second-best assist rate in the country but Kentucky assisted on eight of its 16 baskets in the first half, including five assists to zero turnovers by freshman point guard Ashton Hagans, compared to Tennessee’s five assists on 14 field goals before halftime.
Two-point field goals comprise as much of Tennessee’s offense as almost any team in the country. Fifty-six percent of their points have come from twos. However, it was Kentucky forward PJ Washington that owned the paint.
He repeatedly burned Tennessee’s frontcourt, regardless of whether he was being defended by Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield, by catching the ball in the paint against single coverage, backing his man down and spinning for a right-handed hook shot. Washington scored 13 points in the first half, as did teammate Keldon Johnson, who once scored 11 consecutive points for the Wildcats in just over two minutes of game action.
In a matchup against two All-American-caliber forwards in Williams and Schofield, Washington stole the show with an efficient offensive game that was fueled by right-handed hook shots in the lane but also included a three and his ability to put the ball on the deck. He scored a game-high 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
Meanwhile, Schofield scored an inefficient 17 points on 18 shots before fouling out. Williams had a solid stat line with 16 points and eight rebounds but he was frequently knocked down against a physical Kentucky team. His first two-point make came with 1:05 left in the first half.
You could argue he only got the better of Kentucky on the game’s opening possession, when he drew a charge on Washington. Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone scored the game’s first points on a jumper but Washington answered with a three and Kentucky’s first seven points. The Wildcats never trailed after taking a 3-2 lead.
At the conclusion of a first half in which Kentucky grabbed more boards, shared the ball better and made a higher percentage of its threes, Hagans sliced through Tennessee’s defense and got to the rim for a layup to give Kentucky a 37-31 at halftime. The game got even more lopsided from there.
The Wildcats scored the first 14 points in the second half, starting with yet another right-handed jump hook from Washington, as they quickly gave the Volunteers their greatest deficit of the season. Reid Travis twice gave Kentucky a 24-point lead on a pair of jumpers but Tennessee wouldn’t go out without a fight.
The Vols assembled a 13-0 run of their own, started by a three from Jordan Bone, aided by a switch to a 2-3 zone defense and capped off by a pair of free throws from Schofield that cut Kentucky’s lead to 62-51 with 8:49 to play.
However, Washington made his presence known once again with a layup that ended Tennessee’s scoring run, followed by a steal against Grant Williams, a foul drawn on the other end and two free throws to put the Wildcats up by 15. A short time later he missed a layup but was the first one to the rim to grab the offensive rebound and put the ball back up on the other side of the rim, where he drew Schofield’s fifth foul and completed the old-fashioned three-point play.
The Volunteers cut the Wildcats’ lead to 11 two more times in the final minutes but they lacked the time and firepower to complete a Duke-at-Louisville-esque comeback, especially after Schofield and forward Kyle Alexander fouled out. Tennessee’s bench scored just nine points on 10 shots.
It was a gut check for the top-ranked Volunteers, who hadn’t played a ranked opponent since beating then-No. 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 9.
Tennessee’s strength of schedule ranked No. 58 nationally prior to tip-off, according to kenpom.com. That’s not to suggest that the Volunteers’ 23-1 start to the season was a house of cards but the reality is Tennessee hadn’t played LSU (2nd in the SEC as of Saturday evening), Kentucky (3rd), Ole Miss (T-4th), Auburn (T-6th) or Mississippi State (T-9th) before Saturday.
Thanks to an 11-0 start in SEC play, Tennessee is still in first place after Saturday’s loss but the Volunteers now share the conference lead with LSU. Kentucky is just one game behind and they’ll go to Knoxville for a game on March 2 that could decide the SEC regular season championship and potentially which team earns a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.