Kentucky Makes One Big Statement — But Must Make More 

Kentucky Basketball Rupp Arena 2019

The Kentucky Wildcats should feel good about themselves. They knew how important it was not not only beat the Tennessee Volunteers, but send a message to them.

By Matt Zemek

The Kentucky Wildcats should feel good about themselves. They knew how important it was not not only beat the Tennessee Volunteers, but send a message to them.

“We’re still the class of the SEC. We’re still the team everyone else has to go through in order to be considered an elite team. We are still the gold standard in the SEC, not you, Vols. Not you, Auburn, the 2018 champion. And LSU, sure, you beat us, but you woke us up and made sure we played our best against UT. If we meet in the SEC Tournament, you’re going down. This is still our conference, and we are still the team with the best chance to go to the Final Four, same as it (almost) always was.”

Kentucky made its first big statement with its authoritative display against the Vols on Saturday night. P.J. Washington manhandled the undersized Vols and played over the top of them with great skill and consistency. The stat sheet will show that he did not pull down a large number of rebounds, but numbers could not tell the story of how fully Washington bullied and dominated Tennessee’s front line. He played like the elite force he has always had the ability to become. He played like the player John Calipari has believed he could become on a regular basis. He played like the anchor of a frontcourt on a Final Four and national championship team. Reid Travis helped, but Washington led this dance in the frontcourt.

Keldon Johnson similarly stepped forward and led the charge for Big Blue in the backcourt. He hit 3-pointers early. He made his presence felt in every aspect of the game at various spots on the floor. He was a whirl of activity and a pest for the Vols’ backcourt. With Washington and Johnson taking control of the proceedings, and role players such as Travis and Tyler Herro providing significant contributions as well, Kentucky punched Tennessee in the mouth. It was a glorious performance in front of an electric Rupp Arena crowd on a night when everything needed to be perfect for the Cats… and became exactly that.

So what if UK is down one game in the SEC standings due to the loss to LSU? If this is the beast the Tigers awakened with their controversial 73-71 win over Big Blue on Tuesday, so be it. Kentucky flashed Final Four-level form and made a lot of people think that only one team — Duke — is better than Calipari’s crew if playing at its best.

This Kentucky team seen on Saturday night against Tennessee would beat Virginia. It would beat Michigan. It would beat Gonzaga. UK has already beaten North Carolina and Louisville. We have seen how high the ceiling can be for this team. We get it.

Ah, but the challenge of sports — any sport — is to show that once you unfurl an A-plus performance, you can do it again.

Kentucky CheerleaderIf Kentucky wants to win everything — which is the expected standard in Lexington — it knows it will have to beat Tennessee again, and this next time, the Wildcats know full well that whereas Game 1 in Rupp lined up perfectly for them, Game 2 in Knoxville will set up well for the Vols.

In the rematch in Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee will be the wounded, angry team intent on bouncing back. In that game in the Tommy Bowl, the Vols will be focused on proving a point to themselves and the nation. In that reunion with Tennessee, the Vols will have the burden of demonstrating their toughness, the burden Kentucky carried into this past Saturday’s game in Rupp Arena. Kentucky made that burden work for itself, but Tennessee gets to play that card in the rematch. Kentucky will need to withstand the Vols’ fury in Knoxville. It can’t expect the flow of that game or its emotions to work in the same way. It might be able to expect that Washington will play as well because of his size advantage, but expecting Keldon Johnson to play as well as he did in Rupp probably isn’t a high-percentage bet. Expecting Herro to hit double figures in rebounds also isn’t wise.

Kentucky will need to come up with added resources to win that game. It will have to win in circumstances which cut against the Wildcats. They had the perfect scenario in their corner. They will have a partisan crowd behind them if they meet Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. That is friendly territory for Big Blue — it was last year.

This meeting in Knoxville, though, is the game Kentucky will need to win if it wants to overcome the Vols and gain extra leverage in the race for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky might be a 1 seed now, but if it loses in Knoxville, Tennessee might win back that position.

Kentucky has made one huge statement, yes, but let’s be clear: Big Blue will have to do this again if it wants the NCAA Tournament to set up perfectly.

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