In Kentucky’s first 20 games, freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox had an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost three-to-one: 118 assists and 43 turnovers.
In his last four games, Fox has had 11 assists and 13 turnovers.
“He was sick,” UK Coach John Calipari said, “and that zapped him a little bit.”
As Calipari saw it, the zapping effect was even more telling on the defensive end.
“The big thing was the way he played the ball and bothered the ball and defended,” Calipari said. “He looked like Tyler Ulis.
“He backed off that a little bit. That’s the No. 1 weapon he has. And the No. 2 weapon is his speed. Those are effort things. You’ve got to do that first.”
On-ball defense has been repeatedly cited as an area Kentucky needs to improve. As point guard, Fox gets as much time defending the opponent’s ball handler as anyone.
Calipari seemed to suggest that Fox tried too often for the eye-catching play rather than making the more fundamentally sound play.
As if speaking in Fox’s voice, Calipari said, “I’m going to make one fabulous play and that’ll keep everybody off my neck for three (or) four minutes versus the day-to-day (grind).”
Calipari suggested that Fox’s skill level led him to try for the spectacular.
“You do something crazy because you’re that good,” Calipari said. “You don’t have to play to do something crazy. Just play.”
Senior Mychal Mulder suggested that UK might be its own worst enemy.
“I feel like a lot of times when things are going wrong for our team, we’re beating ourselves in a lot of respects,” he said.
In describing the arc of this season, Mulder said, “People really loved watching us play at the beginning of the year because we were sharing the ball … really focused and we looked like we really knew what it took to win.
“I don’t know if we got a little complacent or what the issue was. But I think we have to get back on track. And I think we’re heading in the right direction right now.”
After Kentucky lost at Tennessee, Calipari said that such negative reinforcement would eventually lead to change.
“I’m not getting through to some guys,” he said, “And I told them after, ‘You’ll continue to lose (if no change is made). I’ve done this 30 years. You cannot do the stuff you’re doing and win basketball games.”
With two losses since then and three narrow escapes, Calipari made it seem he had yet to get through to some guys.
“At some point, someone’s going to say, ‘I’m not playing well and this is on me,’” he said. “I’m not sure they’re ready for that yet.”
Tennessee goes into a rematch against Kentucky much differently than when the teams played three weeks ago.
Leading up to the first game on Jan. 24, the Vols were coming off a victory over Mississippi State and facing UK in Thompson-Boling Arena. The second game comes three days after Tennessee lost to Georgia after holding a 14-point lead in the second half. Plus, of course, the rematch is in Rupp Arena.
“So our mindset is really important,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said. “How are we going to get on to the next one? That’s why I told the players, win or lose, you’ve got to let them go. This time of year, you’ve got to get ready for the next game. And I hope we do that.”
Barnes guessed that it would be his third game coaching against Kentucky in Rupp Arena: Once as Texas coach (a 63-51 UK victory in Dec. 5, 2014) and once as Tennessee coach (an 80-70 UK victory on Feb. 18, 2016).
“It’s one of the great arenas to play,” he said. “The passion, you can feel it when you go there.”
That said, Barnes added that he did not believe this UT team should be affected by the Cat-mosphere.
“This time of year, it’d be disappointing if we let the crowd bother us,” he said.
UK is 19-0 when Isaac Humphries scores. When asked if this leads him to demand the ball more, he said, “No. Never. That’s a stretch.” He called the 19-0 record “maybe a coincidence.” … Joe Tessitore, Sean Farnham and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung will call the game for ESPN.
Tennessee at No. 13 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: Tennessee 14-11 (6-6 SEC); UK 20-5 (10-2)
Series: UK leads 152-69
Last meeting: Tennessee won 82-80 on Jan. 24 in Knoxville
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1