Hey, Kentucky basketball. Listen up.
Don’t make the same mistake as Kentucky football.
Last fall, Mark Stoops’ troops committed the unpardonable sin of turning one loss into two. First, the Cats lost to Georgia 34-17 on showdown Saturday at Kroger Field for the SEC East title. Dejected and deflated, they probably pulled a no-show at Neyland Stadium, losing 24-7 to an obviously inferior Tennessee team. Talk about doubling your misery.
Now a similar scenario confronts John Calipari’s Cats, who were trounced by Tennessee 71-52 on Saturday in a marquee matchup at Thompson-Boling Arena. The outcome could go a long way toward deciding the SEC regular-season champ and No. 1 seed for the conference tournament. Dejected and deflated, now the Cats must pick up the pieces and travel to lovely Oxford, Miss., for a 9 p.m. tip-off on Tuesday.
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And Ole Miss knows a thing or two about dejected and deflated. Just a week ago, the hard-luck Rebels lost 73-71 at home to Tennessee in part because a late charging call went UT’s way, seconds before Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis ripped off his sport coat and tossed it away. Then Saturday at Arkansas, Ole Miss lost 74-73 when the Razorbacks’ Jalen Harris connected on a teardrop shot with 5.9 seconds remaining to give Arkansas its first win in seven games.
Poor Ole Miss. Instead of being 21-8 overall and 11-5 in conference play, the Rebels are 19-10 and 9-7. “It’s life in the SEC,” Davis said Saturday. “We have to turn it around tomorrow.”
Both UK and Ole Miss could tear a page from Tennessee’s textbook. On Feb. 16, the Vols took an 86-69 beatdown from Kentucky in Rupp Arena. On Feb. 23, Rick Barnes’ club lost 82-80 in overtime to an LSU team that was without star point guard Tremont Waters. Then Saturday, facing a Kentucky club without Reid Travis, the Vols returned to their earlier form — only better.
“We learned some things from that first game,” Barnes said Saturday. “We knew we had to get better defensively.”
Kentucky learned Saturday it has to get better offensively. The Cats were wretched on the offensive end, especially in the first half. After making four of their first nine shots, the visitors missed 15 of their next 17. For the game, they shot a season-low 31.8 percent.
“Intimidated” was the word Calipari used to describe his freshman shooters. Then again, who could blame them? Tennessee pulled out all the atmospheric stops. An hour before the game, I tried to walk around the Thompson-Boling concourse only to be slowed to a crawl by the early-arriving crowd. During timeouts, UT trotted out basketball legend Allan Houston, with father Wade, then the now-unretired NFL tight end Jason Witten for bows that sent the Big Orange Crowd into a frenzy.
The climate change worked. After making nine of 10 shots at home against Arkansas the game before, Tyler Herro was 2-for-11 from the floor, including 0-for-5 from three-point range. Keldon Johnson missed four of his five three-point attempts. PJ Washington twice let fly from three-point land. Both missed.
We math nerds calculated the Cats averaged 0.791 points per possession. Not good. In fact, you have to wind the clock all the way back to Dec. 1, 2012, when Baylor visited Rupp Arena to find a lower UK PPP. It was 0.738 that afternoon. The Cats lost 64-55.
That was then, this is now, of course. Just two regular-season games remain in the UK calendar book. Still fighting for a conference title, not to mention a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, the basketball Cats don’t need a losing streak. The football Cats would nod their heads to that.
No. 4 Kentucky at Mississippi
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)