Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s loss at Tennessee

In addition to my finely-crafted column, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 71-52 loss at Tennessee on Saturday:

1. The Cats are not Hercules

Let’s be real, Lucille. Kentucky didn’t have Reid Travis. Tennessee had the home-court advantage. In fact, only Alabama, which fell 71-68 back in January, had lost to the Volunteers by less than double digits in Thompson-Boling. Did we mention Kentucky didn’t have Reid Travis? And after losing to UK by 17 points in Rupp last month, Tennessee had the motivational factor of revenge.

Add all that together and it would have taken a Herculean effort for John Calipari’s Cats to beat Rick Barnes’ Volunteers before a hyped-up Big Orange Nation with a national television audience. What we learned is that Kentucky doesn’t have a Hercules.

“Tennessee would have won anyway,” said Calpari afterward, reference that even if Travis was able to come back from the right knee sprain that has now sidelined the starting senior forward for three games, the Cats would not have been able to top the Vols on this afternoon.

He’s probably right about that. But on the flip side, the Cats didn’t give themselves much of a chance. PJ Washington picked up his second foul with 8:23 left in the first half and sat glued to the bench until the second half. Kentucky shot 23.1 percent the first half and 31.8 percent for the game. You’re not going to win many games — in Knoxville or anywhere else — shooting like that.

Calipari lamented that his team did not play as the aggressors on Saturday. Asked if that carried over to the perimeter shooting, Cal questioned the confidence of his freshmen, who too often passed up open shots to try to drive to the rim. After scoring 29 points against Arkansas on Tuesday, Tyler Herro was 2-for-11 from the floor. Keldon Johnson was 2-for-9. Ashton Hagans was two of six. So was Washington.

2. The SEC Tournament may be Late Night with Kentucky

The way the bracket is set up, the No. 1 seed enjoys the benefit of not just a double-bye but playing the first game of the first session on Friday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville the week of March 13-17. The No. 2 seed gets the benefit of playing the first game of the night session on Friday. The No. 3 seed doesn’t get much benefit. It has to play the second game of the Friday night session.

Right now, UK is the No. 3 seed. LSU won 74-69 at Alabama on Saturday afternoon. So the Tigers and Tennessee are tied atop the league standings at 13-2. Kentucky is 12-3. LSU would be the No. 1 seed, thanks to its 82-80 overtime win over Tennessee last weekend. The Vols would be the No. 2 seed. And Kentucky would be the No. 3 seed.

To be sure, there are still two games remaining. Neither will be easy, however. Not for the Cats, anyway. They travel to Ole Miss on Tuesday night. At 9-7 in league play, the Rebels have played everyone tough. Kermit Davis’ team has lost three straight games, all in brutal fashion, including a 74-73 loss at Arkansas on Saturday. Ole Miss needs a win. In the worst way.

Then UK finishes with Florida at home. This is not the same Florida that the Cats beat 65-54 in Gainesville back on Feb. 2. Going into Saturday night’s game against Georgia, the Gators had won five straight to go 9-6 in league play. Kentucky should beat Florida next Saturday, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

In the meantime, the Cats have to hope that somehow, someway, LSU and Tennessee lose.

3. Saturday’s loss could be good for the (cocky?) Cats

It’s certainly not good from a confidence standpoint. But it could be good from a reality standpoint. The Cats had won 14 of their last 15 games. The one loss was a controversial two-point decision to LSU that ended with what appeared to be basket interference on the winning tip-in that went uncalled. On Tuesday, UK fooled around and fell behind by 15 points at home to Arkansas. The Cats rallied to win, but you wonder if they weren’t getting a little cocky.

If so, Saturday should change that. Calipari’s young team, playing without a key starter, went up against a really good team and got it handed to them. UK got in foul trouble. It took bad shots. It couldn’t stay in front of Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone, who scored 27 points. It couldn’t contain Tennessee’s Grant Williams, who scored 24.

If the Cats shrug off the loss and make excuses — We didn’t have Travis — that would be a mistake. If they take the loss as an object lesson that it’s March and time for a young team to figure out how it needs to get better at crunch time, there will have been a valuable lesson learned in the loss.

We shall see which direction these Cats take.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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