KNOXVILLE — For 30 seconds it had all the makings of another Rick Barnes victory over John Calipari inside Kentucky basketball's little shop of horrors known as Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena.
Four times in a row — or every year since Barnes took over the Big Orange program prior to the 2015-16 season — UK's Calipari had ventured into the Boling Alley with a seemingly superior team and slinked away with a loss.
In the worst of those, Big Blew threw away a 21-point first-half lead during Barnes' first year on the job against his close friend Cal.
And when Saturday afternoon's nationally televised game began with Volunteers senior guard Jordan Bowden blocking a 3-pointer by the Wildcats' Tyrese Maxey after only 21 seconds, soon to be followed by a 30-second shot-clock violation, members of both the Big Orange and Big Blue nations had to wonder if a fifth straight UT win on home hardwood was soon to follow.
But soon enough UK was on top 9-4, then 26-15, then 37-30 at halftime. From there UT never again pulled closer than four before losing 77-64.
"I thought our guys really fought," Barnes said after watching his team fall to 13-10 overall and 5-5 in Southeastern Conference play. "First half, we did what we wanted to do. But they're a hard team to guard. They're trending in the way John wants his teams to play."
The first time these two longtime rivals met a year ago, the Vols were the No. 1 team in the land, ESPN's "GameDay" was visiting Rupp Arena and both teams were headed to the Sweet 16.
When the NCAA announced Saturday its top four seeds in each of its four tournament regionals — if March Madness started this week instead of during the third full week of March — neither Kentucky nor Tennessee were among those 16 schools. In fact, only Auburn — the SEC's current leader after Saturday's overtime win over LSU — represented the league among those 16 programs.
"I probably won't even bring that up," Calipari said when asked about a possible slight to a UK team that's now won road games at Arkansas, Texas Tech and Tennessee with a neutral-site win over Michigan State and a home win over Louisville.
But should the Wildcats be in that mix? Will they by the end of the year? When you can go on the road and score 12 more points than the Vols are giving up on average in conference play, hold UT two points under its average and hit at least 50% from both the floor and the 3-point line and knock down 88% of your 25 free throws, aren't you worthy of a top-16 seed, especially when you entered this game ranked 15th in the latest Associated Press poll?
"Probably the best team I've played against in terms of three guys being able to handle the ball," Bowden said after watching UK guards Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Maxey combine to score 43 points and hit 15 of 17 free throws.
Then there's junior center Nick Richards, who grabbed seven rebounds, hit all five of his field-goal tries and five of six free throws to finish with 15 points.
Finally, freshman Johnny Juzang — who was averaging 2.3 points for the season — hit all four of his field-goal attempts and both his free throws to finish with 13 points.
Said Maxey of his fellow freshman: "He stays ready. He's the first one in the gym and the last to leave."
Added Juzang, whose brother Christian is a senior guard for Harvard: "I'm not saying it's easy, but you've got to keep going."
Both the Vols and Wildcats will keep going because their coaches demand it. Though Tennessee is struggling right now, it's easy to forget that UT is without the services of point guard Lamonte Turner for the rest of the year due to a shoulder injury and has temporarily lost star freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James because of a groin injury.
Though a defection isn't the same as an injury, UK is without highly ranked freshman Kahlil Whitney, who left the team a couple of weeks ago to focus on the NBA.
In what perhaps was a reference to Whitney, Maxey said of Juzang, "He could have let go of the rope when he wasn't playing."
Loss or no loss, the Vols don't act like a team about to let go of the rope, which is a credit to both the players and Barnes. They grabbed more offensive rebounds, forced more turnovers and blocked more shots than UK.
"We had many open shots. The ball just didn't go in," said UT guard Santiago Vescovi.
"They made tough shots," forward John Fulkerson added, "but we did our best."
Yet this is one year when the Vols' best may not be enough. When the NCAA sees only one of your conference's 14 teams to be worthy of a top-four seed a little more than a month before Selection Sunday, anything close to a .500 league mark is not likely to put you in the field.
As for Kentucky, now 18-5 overall and 8-2 in conference play, the Wildcats' plan to impress the committee seems both simple and wise.
"We're just trying to get 1% better every single day," Maxey said.
Accomplish that and UK would be 35% better by Selection Sunday, and that should be good enough to make it one of the NCAA tournament's top 16 seeds, no matter how much the rest of the country improves between now and then.
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