Five reasons Kentucky basketball looked like Kentucky basketball, vintage 2016-17 variety, in that 83-58 win over Tennessee on Tuesday night:
1. The beauty of ball movement: The basketball didn’t stick Tuesday. It moved and moved as the Cats made the extra pass, something that John Calipari has been emphasizing since that 82-80 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 24.
The result was 17 assists compared to seven turnovers, fewest since six at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10. De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe each had six assists. Fox played 32 minutes without a turnover.
The crisp ball movement led to open three-point looks that the Cats knocked down. They were 10 of 18 from behind the line in the first half. Derek Willis was a perfect 4 for 4.
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When UK moves the ball, Calipari said afterward, “we look like a different team.”
2. Don’t forget the defense: Kentucky’s offensive improvement overshadowed its defensive play. Tennessee’s 58 points were a season low. The Vols shot 31 percent the first half, just 34.6 percent for the game.
The Vols shot 46.9 percent in that surprise win over UK at Thompson-Boling. They made five of 10 three-pointers that night. They missed 13 of their 16 attempts from behind the line on Tuesday night.
In fact, over the past two games, Alabama and Tennessee have made a combined six of 30 three-point shots against the Cats. The previous two games, Florida (10 of 26) and LSU (10 of 23) went 20 of 49 from three against UK.
3. De’Aaron Fox looked like De’Aaron Fox: Yes, the freshman guard had a new hairdo Tuesday, sort of a man-bun, although not as tight as the one Virginia freshman Kyle Guy sports. Thankfully, though, the kid with the new ’do played like the old De’Aaron.
Since missing the Jan. 31 Georgia game because of illness — that after spraining his ankle against South Carolina — the rookie had not quite looked right. Calipari even said his point guard looked “zapped.”
Tuesday, Fox got his zip back. He was up and down the floor, scoring 13 points to go with those six assists. He was a huge reason UK outscored the Vols 18-0 in fast-break points. He makes the offense go.
4. Senior star turns off the bench: A year ago, Derek Willis scored a career-high 25 points when UK beat Tennessee in Lexington. On Tuesday, Vols Coach Rick Barnes said his game plan was tailored around not letting Willis or Wenyen Gabriel, coinhabitants of UK’s No. 4 spot in the lineup, have a big night. Willis had a big night anyway.
Willis scored 12 points as UK took a 47-32 lead at the half. He finished with 16, fourth-highest points total in his career. It was the fourth game he has made four or more three-point shots.
Meanwhile, fellow senior Dominique Hawkins scored in double figures for the second time in his college career. Hawkins had 10 points, four rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes. Afterward, Calipari referred to him as “old reliable,” meaning he knows what he will get from the Richmond native.
5. Getting ready to get down: Maybe Kentucky’s lull had something to do with what former coach Joe B. Hall used to call the “January slump.” Maybe Calipari’s youngsters realize that five regular-season games remain and that there’s an SEC title and No. 1 conference tournament seed on the line. Then it’s on.
Conference co-leader Florida suffered a tough blow Wednesday with news that starting center John Egbunu tore an ACL and is lost for the season. The 6-foot-11 junior provided muscle on the boards and defensive strength for Mike White’s team.
As for Kentucky, one good game does not a turnaround make. Calipari used the phrase “work in progress” more than once Tuesday. Still, for one night at least, the Cats showed they remain capable of being the dominant Cats.
Kentucky’s five remaining regular-season games
Feb. 18 at Georgia — UK beat the Bulldogs 90-81 in overtime in Rupp Arena on Jan. 31.
Feb. 21 at Missouri — Mizzou is no longer the worst team in the SEC. (LSU owns the cellar.)
Feb. 25 vs. Florida — The Gators have won seven straight but lost their starting center Wednesday.
Feb. 28 vs. Vanderbilt — The Cats held off the Commodores 87-81 in Nashville on Jan. 10.
March 4 at Texas A&M — The disappointing Aggies have given UK fits in College Station.