Sizzling Vols expect to get struggling Kentucky at its very best

Kentucky Athletics photo by Tommy Quarles / John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats are off to a 1-3 start in Southeastern Conference play entering Saturday’s game at Tennessee.

Remember the pandemic-altered college basketball season of 2020-21, when Kentucky failed to win 10 games for the first time in nearly 100 years?

Those 9-16 Wildcats came to Tennessee, built a 20-point lead on multiple occasions and cruised past the Volunteers 70-55.

"They came in here and just owned us," Vols coach Rick Barnes said this week in a news conference. "They did what they wanted to do and had a huge win against us."

Consider that a lesson learned as No. 5 Tennessee prepares for its Saturday noon showdown on ESPN against a Kentucky team that isn't 9-16 material but is struggling with a 1-3 start to Southeastern Conference play that includes last Saturday's 78-52 humbling at Alabama and Tuesday night's shocking 71-68 home loss against a rebuilding South Carolina.

Kentucky, which is 10-6 overall in John Calipari's 14th season in Lexington, may face the Vols (14-2, 4-0) without two starters — senior forward Jacob Toppin suffered a shoulder injury in Tuscaloosa and sat out Tuesday, while five-star freshman guard Cason Wallace played just eight minutes against the Gamecocks before being pulled with back spasms.

"Am I happy? No. I hate losing," Calipari said Tuesday night in a news conference. "We've been undermanned, but it doesn't matter. You're still playing to win. I've got to build this team up, but I've still got to hold them accountable. Going nuts on these guys right now just isn't the answer.

"I still think this team can be good. We've got to have a full roster, and then we've got to go, but Tennessee is really good."

The Wildcats have been plagued by their play out of the gate, suffering quick double-digit deficits against Gonzaga and UCLA and in all three league losses, with Missouri the first of those. There have also been tough times for returning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound senior forward who tallied just four points and six rebounds at Alabama and had to play all 40 minutes against the Gamecocks.

"Everybody is going at Oscar," Calipari said, "so we've got to figure out some stuff."

Tuesday's loss snapped Kentucky's 28-game winning streak inside Rupp Arena, which is normally raucous but has been more tepid this season with more empty seats. One fan Tuesday had to be escorted from the arena after holding up a sign urging Calipari to become the next Texas coach.

This season's scuffling and the 9-16 team of two years ago sandwiched last season's team that went 28-8 overall and 14-4 in SEC play but was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament by the 15th-seeded Saint Peter's Peacocks. The frustration of that early exit was magnified weeks later when Kansas and North Carolina met in the championship game.

The Wildcats had defeated the Jayhawks and Tar Heels by a combined 47 points during the regular season, with neither of those games in Rupp.

"Stick with these kids," Calipari said Tuesday when asked what message he had for impatient fans. "If you want to get on me, that's fine. These kids are trying. We're just still not quite in sync.

"We've got to be better than this, and that's on me."

Barnes has racked up a 10-7 record against Calipari since coming to Knoxville in 2015, which includes SEC tournament semifinal triumphs in 2019 and again last year. Yet humbling defeats are always 40 minutes away, as evidenced by two seasons ago in Thompson-Boling Arena and last January's 107-79 massacre in Lexington.

That was Kentucky's highest-scoring output in the 235-game history of the series.

"I wish y'all could have been in that film session," Tennessee senior guard Josiah-Jordan James told reporters Thursday. "There was a lot of soul-searching we had to do as a team. We always hang our hats on the defensive end, and to let a team score 107 points — we understand that we can't let that happen ever again.

"We got embarrassed on national television."

The Wildcats were the last team to defeat Tennessee in Knoxville, so the Vols aren't lacking for motivational aspects amid Kentucky's current chaos.

"Rivalries aren't rivalries unless you beat each other," Barnes said Thursday. "We've been competing against each other since I've been here, but it's been going on forever. They're going to get better, and I don't care what's happened up to this point.

"I know John Calipari. I know how he is, and nobody is going to work harder and put more into it. He'll have his team ready, and I think our guys certainly know that."

Lofton honoring

Saturday's showdown will include the retiring of Chris Lofton's jersey No. 5.

"We all should be excited for Chris," Barnes said Thursday. "I've never met anyone who can say one ill thing about Chris. When you come into a situation like we did eight years ago, you want to build something special, but you also know you need past players and people involved to help you do that.

"He embraced us. He loves this university, and he loves being in this gym. He's as real as can be, and then you throw in the fact he had to fight cancer — he's just a great person."

The 6-2, 200-pound guard from Maysville, Kentucky, played for the Vols from 2004-08, averaging 20.8 points per game as a junior and earning the 2007 SEC player of the year. He led the league in 3-pointers per game each of his last three seasons.

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