Kentucky handed No. 1 Tennessee its first loss since November on Saturday night, making a strong case to join the Volunteers as an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed with a dominant 86-69 home victory.
The No. 5 Wildcats (21-4, 10-2), who led the Volunteers by as many as 24 midway through the second half, bounced back from an early-week loss to LSU, a red-hot team that is now tied with Tennessee (23-2, 11-1) atop the SEC standings.
Had Kentucky not lost to LSU on Tuesday, Gonzaga might’ve been bumped to the No. 2 line to make way for the Wildcats ascension to a No. 1 seed in the projected bracket field. Their profile already merits a top seed with eight Quadrant 1 (top-30 home, top-75 road) victories — tied for third most in the country — to go with a top-25 strength of schedule and top-20 non-conference strength of schedule.
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“I hit them right after the game with LSU and said, ‘Hey, that was a tough loss,’ ” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But you know, we needed it. We need to go back to what we were, and sometimes you’ve got to get knocked in the head to know that.
“So the loss to LSU probably helped us win this game.”
Kentucky’s top-6 ranking in the NET, the NCAA’s new metric replacing the RPI, figures to go up a point or two after beating a team that held the second No. 1 seed prior to Saturday’s top-five SEC showdown.
In Saturday’s contest, Kentucky got its offense from its usual suspects to help pull off the convincing upset; sophomore forward PJ Washington (23 points) and freshman guard Keldon Johnson (19 points) gave UK a potent inside-out game to help take down the nation’s top team in both the coaches and Associated Press polls.
“It shows everybody that we can still play with great teams in this league and also in the country,” Washington said of Kentucky’s performance.
Meanwhile, Tennessee struggled to find an offensive rhythm, shooting just 28 percent from beyond the arc and scoring well below its 85-point average. All-American candidates Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield had 16 points and 17 points, respectively, in the loss. Jordan Bone paced the Vols with 19 points.
“Tonight, we weren’t Tennessee tough,” Schofield said. “Kentucky was totally kicking our butt, scoring the ball, defense, everything.”
After leading 37-31 at halftime, the Wildcats built a 20-point lead just several minutes into the second half to help put the game out of reach. Tennessee nearly sliced UK’s cushion to single digits late in the second half, but Calipari’s group always had enough of a counter-punch to put the Vols away.
“We had some shots early and didn’t make them, and that’s part of it,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “But they’re not giving much room to work with.”
Contributing: Associated Press