PJ Washington took the fight to Tennessee
Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 76-65 loss at Tennessee on Saturday:
1. Saturday night’s textbook lesson: Not all SEC road games are the same
Last Tuesday in Louisiana, John Calipari’s young club played its first true road game of the season and won, topping the Tigers 74-71. After the debacle that was last season under now-fired coach Johnny Jones, the Tigers faithful appeared thrilled just to be competitive again under energetic first-year coach Will Wade. LSU was disappointed, yes, but not depressed.
On Saturday, Tennessee was desperate. After an impressive non-conference campaign, the Vols had started SEC play 0-2. They couldn't afford to go 0-3. So when Rick Barnes’ club fell behind by nine (37-28) at the half, it had no choice but to turn up the intensity in the second half.
“They manhandled us,”UK coach John Calipari. “It was embarrassing.”
Maybe not embarrassing, but surely it was a shock to the system for Calipari’s collection of rookies. UK was outscored 47-28 in the second half. It was outrebounded 23-15 in the second half. Out of position and outhustled, it reached and grabbed and found itself in massive foul trouble. Wenyen Gabriel fouled out with 11:58 left. Hamidou Diallo fouled out with 1:08 left.
In back-to-back road games, the only difference was that LSU might have wanted to beat Kentucky, but Tennessee wanted it more. Needed it more.
2. Cats needed more from Kevin Knox in Knoxville
PJ Washington was the one Cat who took the battle to Tennessee. Matched against the Vols’ top scorer, forward Grant Williams, Washington scored seven of Kentucky’s first 11 points. He finished the first half with 11 points, two blocked shots and three steals.
In he second half, however, Washington cramped up. He scored just one second-half basket before leaving the game for good with 12:33 left, taken to the locker room. He did return to the bench but not to the game, and no other Cat picked up the slack.
Certainly not Kevin Knox. It appeared that the 6-foot-9 forward had snapped out of his two-game funk with a 16-point, 11-rebound effort at LSU. But Knox regressed Saturday night, going just 1-for-9 from the floor, missing all five of his three-point attempts.
On a night when Kentucky needed more off the glass, Knox grabbed just five rebounds in 31 minutes. He did not have an offensive rebound.
“He couldn’t bring in balls,” Calipari said afterward.
On Friday, the coach said the freshman from Tampa was no longer working with the guards. From now on, he would work with the big men. That’s where this team needs him, down low, battling on the boards, playing some post defense, mixing it up with players his own size.
When he gets more work there, Calipari said Saturday, “he’ll be that guy.”
Against Tennessee, when UK needed him to be that guy, Knox wasn’t.
3. Aren’t we all just day to day?
“We’re just day to day with this team,” Calipari said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Even Rick Barnes, the Tennessee coach and Calipari’s good friend, said this Kentucky team is different than the ones Cal has had before at UK. Asked to be more specific, Barnes mentioned that he didn’t think this team was as big and strong as some other recent Kentucky teams.
“But John will get them where they need to be,” Barnes said. “He always does.”
Before that happens, there will be more nights like the one on Rocky Top.
Example: After scoring 63 points in his previous three games, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was held to just three points. Tennessee appeared ready for his signature drives to the basket. As a result, the Canada native was just one of six from the floor.
Example: Wenyen Gabriel was terrific in the first half, knocking down three three-pointers as UK assumed that nine-point lead. Second half, Gabriel picked up four fouls in less than four minutes on the floor. A reliable rebounder of late, he managed just one rebound in his 19 minutes.
Example: After showing promising signs early in the year, fellow sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones is getting pushed around again. He managed just four points and three rebounds in 16 minutes.
Example: Hamidou Dillao. At LSU, Diallo’s output was hampered by the flu bug. At Tennessee, the New Yorker picked up two fouls in the game’s first 1:45. He managed five points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. He’s another player who will have to fight his way out of a slump.
Tennessee might lack Kentucky’s talent, but the Vols are/were deeper. It showed. With Washington out, Williams rose to the challenge, scoring 16 second-half points. Barnes got solid contributions from eight of his players, including reserve John Fulkerson, who positioned himself at the high post and shredded UK’s zone with pinpoint passes.
Barnes is right, or course. Calipari has a history of getting his team where they need to be by season’s end. That might be tougher this season with this group, but one road loss against a team that needed a victory is nothing to hang your head about. Instead, it should be a lesson learned.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vs. Kansas (Chicago)
vs. Monmouth (New York)
vs. UCLA (New Orleans)