LEXINGTON, Ky. — Rupp Arena was a time machine on Tuesday night, transporting Kentucky basketball backward a month to when the Wildcats were wrecking opponents. Their 83-58 bludgeoning of Tennessee was a welcome return to early season form.
“It felt like it tonight, that we’re probably one of the best teams in the country,” guard Malik Monk said. “It brings a lot of joy to us. It shows that we can do it if we just focus on it, so we’re going to build on this.”
Kentucky’s third consecutive victory was its most impressive in the resurgence, finally cleansing the bitter taste of a recent slide. Three losses in four games, the first of which came against the Volunteers, and a general malaise had the fan base flustered. Wins over LSU and Alabama helped a little, but second-half letdowns tempered enthusiasm.
Tuesday night was at last an unqualified success: the 13th-ranked Wildcats (21-5, 11-2 SEC) whipped the ball around until it found an open man, smothered Tennessee on defense, crashed the glass and refused to relinquish their big lead after building it.
“Some of the rebooting, you’re seeing,” coach John Calipari said. “Today was kind of growing up. It’s being a man. But this is only the beginning of what we started, what was it, 10 days ago?”
That’s when Calipari, following a blowout loss at Florida, announced a reboot that allegedly would fix whatever had broken the three weeks prior. Sure looks like it’s working. The Wildcats hit 10 3-pointers in the first half against Tennessee because the ball never stopped moving.
“We passed up shots to give another guy a shot, and it’s great to see,” Calipari said. “All of a sudden, you saw pass, cut, cut, cut, pass, cut. And all of a sudden it was like the damn burst. It’s boom, here we come.”
Kentucky led by 16 points after 12 minutes and by as many as 28 in the second half, squashing a troubling recent trend of blowing big leads. The Wildcats also snapped an ugly streak of six straight opponents shooting better than 50 percent in the second half.
The Vols shot just 34.6 percent for the game, worst by an opponent since Hofstra in December. Their 18.8 percent from 3-point range was the lowest against the Cats all season. Kentucky’s last two opponents have made just 6 of 30 threes and managed only 11 combined assists with 29 turnovers.
“I think this was a good step in the right direction. It’s definitely better than how we’ve been playing. I think everybody would agree with that,” said senior forward Derek Willis. And what did Calipari say during Tuesday’s rout? “Don’t be complacent. Step on these guys’ throats and then it gets easy. You take out the refs (and) then you can just play relaxed.”
That’s how Kentucky looked in winning its first seven non-conference games of the season by an average of 31 points and in winning its first seven league games by an average of 20. The Wildcats played fast and loose, shared on offense and swarmed on defense.
“That’s what we’ve been working on,” Calipari said. “We were playing that way early. We got away from it. It makes us look like a different team.”