When Kentucky lost to LSU by one on a controversial tip-in on its home floor on Tuesday night, you could feel it coming.
John Calipari insisted the defeat—the Wildcats’ first in more than a month—could be a blessing in disguise for his young team. “There becomes an arrogance when you’re winning,” he said. “And we kind of got away from what makes us good.”
After Saturday night’s 86–69 destruction of No. 1 Tennessee, some arrogance would be justified.
Kentucky let out all the frustration of the loss to the Tigers, dealing the Vols their first loss since November and undoubtedly knocking them from their four-week perch as the nation’s top-ranked team.
The Wildcats were hungrier for this one, and it showed. It showed when they outhustled Tennessee to loose balls. It showed when they crashed the glass and grabbed 12 offensive rebounds. It showed when they bullied their way through the paint, winning that battle 36 to 20. And it showed when they beat multiple Vols down the floor in transition.
It was, at times, a clinic by Kentucky against a team that had won 19 straight, and showed just how far this team has come since being embarrassed by Duke at the Champions Classic on the season’s first night. That Kentucky team was anything but a national title contender, and maybe not even an SEC one.
But now? Who doesn’t want to see the Blue Devils and Wildcats hold a rematch this March or April—with much more on the line this time around?
It’s easy to dream about it, because the growth of this UK team is real. For as lost as it looked on that night in Indianapolis, or even as it slogged through some shaky performances in early games against lower competition, it’s now realizing the potential that people saw when AP voters named Kentucky the country's preseason No. 2 team. And the scary thing? The Wildcats likely haven’t peaked.
There's been plenty of reasons Kentucky has turned things around, including the relentlessness of defensive star and floor general Ashton Hagans, the shooting of Keldon Johnson or the fearless attitude of Tyler Herro. But no one may be a better representation of its growth this season than PJ Washington. The sophomore and former five-star recruit made the decision to return to Lexington after averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds as a freshman, and brought SEC Player of the Year contender expectations with him.
Yet until recently, Washington was barely an afterthought in any POY race. He spent two months of the season being far too inconsistent, having spurts like a three-game span with 19, 19 and 25 points against mid-majors in November or his 29-point outburst in a December loss to Seton Hall, but also failing to reach double figures in nine of his first 15 games.
Seventeen games into the season, Washington was averaging 11.8 points, and had only reached the 20-point mark twice. Since then, he’s averaging 21 points and has had at least 20 in seven of eight, a remarkable flipping of the switch just as Kentucky entered its toughest stretch yet of the season.
It all came to a head on Saturday against Tennessee, as the 6’8” Washington took full advantage of the undersized Vols who tried in vain to stop the big man. The sophomore scored 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting, continuing his aggressive play and abusing the likes of 6’6” Admiral Schofield and 6’7” Grant Williams inside.
For his part, Williams attempted only four shots from the field but finished with 16 thanks to contributions at the free-throw line. While it wasn’t a poor offensive night for the All-America candidate, it was Washington, not the reigning SEC Player of the Year, who made the strongest statement for this year’s race.
The futile attempts to stop Washington were one of several things that went wrong for Rick Barnes’s team at Rupp, though the Vols ultimately were able to stop the bleeding after falling behind by as many as 24. Williams, Schofield and point guard Jordan Bone combined for 52 points, but Tennessee got little help elsewhere, with the rest of the rotation finishing with a total of 17. As a team, it shot 28% from three and got out-rebounded by 13, making for a long night for the boys in orange.
Losing for the first time in months and falling from the No. 1 ranking will be a tough pill for the Volunteers to swallow, but a night like this was probably inevitable. As impressive as Tennessee’s 19-game win streak was, it couldn’t be ignored that since its big Dec. 9 win over Gonzaga, it hadn’t played a team on solid footing for an NCAA tournament bid until Saturday’s loss in Lexington.
And outside of a home game with Vanderbilt on Tuesday, the Vols’ remaining schedule is a brutal one. They get LSU and Ole Miss on the road along with Kentucky and Mississippi State at home before closing things out at Auburn, a stretch that will get them battle tested for the postseason as well as determine an SEC race that now has LSU and Tennessee tied on top at 11–1, with the Wildcats right behind at 10–2.
Losing this week served Kentucky well, even if no team ever wants to drop a game just to find an extra level of motivation.
Now we'll see if Tennessee will respond to defeat in the same fashion.