Wiedmer: Are Vols just good enough to fall short?

Wiedmer: Are Vols just good enough to fall short?

January 19th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee's Armani Moore (4) is pressured by Kentucky's Aaron Harrison (2) during their NCAA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 74-66.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

LEXINGTON. Ky. - The late Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears once said of a particularly frustrating player, "He's just good enough to get you beat."

Six decades later, one must begin to wonder if the current Volunteers team doesn't mirror that remark.

Saturday afternoon inside Rupp Arena, Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "That's a good team. Tennessee is not going to lose many in our league. They're really physical."

He quickly added, "I'm just happy we don't have to see them again until tournament time possibly, and I hope we don't see them there."

Yet it was UK, not UT that won, the Wildcats prevailing 74-66 after rallying from a nine-point deficit less than eight minutes into the opening half.

Not that you'd know it listening to the victors.

"Those are some pretty big dudes," said Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 250. "They're a really physical team."

Added fellow UK freshman Andrew Harrison, who led all scorers with 26: "The older guys told us they were going to try to out-muscle us and talk trash. We had to be ready to match their toughness."

A year ago in Knoxville, a few days after last year's UK rookie star Nerlens Noel was lost for the season with a knee injury, the Wildcats couldn't match the Volunteers' toughness. Not even close. The Big Orange crushed the Big Blue, 88-58.

When Tennessee opened this game on a 6-0 run, Calipari said he worried such an outcome could be repeated. He called a timeout less than three minutes into the contest.

"They were going to do the same thing," Cal said. "[I] had to get some guys out of the game. Had to change up what we were doing. But again, they beat our brains in."

Yet somehow Kentucky won. And Tennessee lost, falling to 11-6 for the season and 2-2 within a Southeastern Conference many believe is no better than seventh best nationally.

And should Cal be wrong about just how good a team Tennessee is, should the Vols continue to surprise in more bad ways than good, should such good efforts as the Vols turned in against Kentucky continue to wind up in the same loss column as the stinker UT turned in against Texas A&M a week ago, this season almost assuredly will end as Cuonzo Martin's first two years as the Vols' coach did -- in the NIT instead of the NCAA tournament.

And what then?

Can Martin still craft a brighter future as the last remnants of Bruce Pearl's final team -- guard Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon -- run out of eligibility?

Or do you look at the certain loss of those productive seniors along with the probable exit of junior post Jarnell Stokes to the NBA and worry that Martin's tenure is going nowhere fast?

Tennessee is a good team. Nobody who crushed Virginia, lost respectably at Wichita State and won with ease at LSU is without promise or merit.

Or as Cal said, "They run their stuff. Cuonzo has got them guarding. They're really physical. They bump and grind."

But despite an all-star effort from Stokes (20 points, 15 rebounds), UT lost. Despite out-rebounding Kentucky by 13 -- the same UK that's been out-rebounding everybody else by 12.9 boards a game -- UT lost. Despite delivering a performance in which Maymon and Stokes outscored the Cats' inside duo of Willie Cauley-Stein and Randle by a 32-18 total, shutting out the 7-foot Cauley-Stein completely, UT lost.

Yes, the home team hit an otherworldly 23 of 24 free throws despite knocking down less than 66 percent on the season. Yes, UK also bagged seven 3-pointers in 16 attempts, which is a little more than two more than the Cats have averaged hitting for the year.

"They've usually been missing clutch shots," said McRae, who uncharacteristically missed six of seven 3s and two huge free throws late despite finishing with 17 points. "But they didn't miss them today."

No, on this day, UT missed them, at least enough of them to come up short. And you could argue that's simply life on the road in basketball. High school. College. The NBA. There's a reason Kentucky has won close to 90 percent of its games inside Rupp Arena since the place opened in the fall of 1976. The Cats are comfortable there. Comfortable with the rims, the floor, the crowd, which was 24,246 strong on Saturday.

But this wasn't just a game the Vols led by nine in the first half. After the Cats went on top 37-32 in the opening seconds of the final period, UT ran off seven straight points to lead 39-37.

That was the last time the Big Orange led, however. The nation's No. 13 team, at least until Monday's rankings are released, steadied itself and stymied its opponent.

"We felt like we had an opportunity to come up and win a ballgame against a league opponent," Martin said. "Just came up short."

At some point, if that pattern continues, Martin's time as the Tennessee coach might also come up short, his teams just good enough to get beat when it matters most.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com