A Tennessee men's basketball team that was No. 6 in The Associated Press poll in mid-January may now find itself unranked.
The No. 19 Volunteers had no answers for Kentucky's best outing of the season Saturday afternoon inside Thompson-Boling Arena, as the Wildcats were the best 7-13 squad in college hoops history during a stunning 70-55 thrashing. Kentucky avenged an 82-71 loss to the Vols in Rupp Arena on Feb. 6 by grabbing a double-digit lead 11 minutes and 34 seconds into the contest and never relinquishing it.
In fact, Tennessee trailed by 15 at halftime and never got closer than that in the final 20 minutes.
"Getting beat by just 15 was surprising," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "I thought we were that bad. Some of the 3-pointers we took were by the wrong guys at the wrong time, and I thought we got stagnant doing that. I don't think you can get the ball and stare down somebody and then raise up.
"That's not how we play. We play better when we move it and get going, and when they're shooting 60%, it doesn't give us a chance to run it the way we want to."
Tennessee's No. 6 ranking was the result of a 10-1 start, but the Vols are just 5-5 since for a 15-6 overall record and 8-6 Southeastern Conference mark. Five-star freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combined for 50 points in Lexington two weeks ago but had just 19 Saturday, with Johnson collecting 15 points to support Victor Bailey's team-high 18 but with the newcomers combining on 6-of-25 shooting, including 1-of-9 from long range.
"It was hard for both of us to get in a rhythm or groove just because of how packed in the gaps were for us to get into driving lanes, which is what we love to do," Johnson said. "If we can't drive as players, we've got to figure out something else for us to thrive."
Kentucky, meanwhile, improved to 8-13 overall and 7-7 within the league with its third straight triumph.
The Wildcats, despite Saturday's showing, will still have to win next month's league tournament in Nashville to punch their NCAA ticket. Kentucky began Saturday just 77th in the NET rankings, which placed them ninth in the SEC behind Alabama (7), Tennessee (11), Arkansas (24), LSU (28), Florida (30), Missouri (43), Ole Miss (55) and Auburn (66).
"We're a good defensive team, and we learned a little bit from the last time playing them how you have to play them," Wildcats coach John Calipari said after improving to just 6-8 against Barnes. "We knew coming in that it was going to be hand-to-hand combat, and we didn't back away. They're a top-20 team and probably a top-15 team that has a chance to get to the Final Four, and we came in here and did it.
"It's one game, and now we keep building."
A Johnson 3-pointer at the 15:09 mark of the first half gave Tennessee a 10-8 lead, but the Vols would endure a five-minute, 52-second scoring drought as Kentucky used a 15-0 run to forge control. The Wildcats were up 18-10 coming out of the second media timeout and got a Jacob Toppin dunk off the inbound play and a Davion Mintz 3-pointer to cap the surge.
Yves Pons ended that round of hemorrhaging with a 3-pointer to make it a 23-13 game, but Kentucky had a smaller burst in store, using Brandon Boston's jumper to cement a 7-1 run that gave the Wildcats a 30-14 advantage. Kentucky's largest first-half lead was 17 points on two occasions, with the first provided by Isaiah Jackson's electric dunk from the baseline that made it 38-21 with 2:49 before the break.
Mintz was the star of the first 20 minutes, making all five of his 3-point attempts to stake a 45-30 lead for the Wildcats. Kentucky made 17 of 28 shots overall (60.7%) in the first half, while Bailey's 12 points were the only thing barely keeping the Vols alive in their own building.
Springer's first half contained no points and three turnovers.
Olivier Sarr made four free throws in the first minute of the second half to extend Kentucky's lead to 49-30, and a Sarr jumper with 12:18 to play gave the Wildcats a 20-point bulge at 58-38. Jackson and Mintz wound up leading Kentucky with 16 and 15 points, respectively, while Sarr and Keion Brooks chipped in 10 apiece.
"It's not the end of the world," Bailey said. "The sky is still the limit for us. We've got a lot of good guys who can make things happen, especially when we play as a unit. We're going to click soon. I really believe that."
Tennessee sophomore guard/forward Josiah-Jordan James didn't play for a second consecutive game due to a sore wrist.
"He wanted to go today, but I don't think he felt like he could do it," Barnes said. "With him in the lineup, it changes a lot of what we can do when he's out there playing one of the post positions. In terms of stretching the floor, he gives us a little more space and a way to attack that we weren't able to today."