It’s a good start.
After losing the first home SEC game of John Calipari’s tenure Saturday against Texas A&M, UK outlasted the Tenessee Volunteers (8-7, 0-3) 75-65 Tuesday night in Rupp Arena to improve to 11-5 on the season (2-1 SEC). Kyle Wiltjer led the Cats with 17 points off the bench, and Nerlens Noel stuffed the stat sheet once again with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks, 4 steals, and 2 assists. They were joined by Ryan Harrow (12) and Alex Poythress (10) in double figures. Jordan McRae was the only Volunteer in double figures and led all scorers with 23.
Despite the closing margin, the game was tight throughout. After leading by 3 at half time, UK went on an 11-6 run to grow the lead to 8 before Tennessee answered with a 10-2 run of its own to tie the game at 47. The teams fought to another tie with 6:47 left before Julius Mays hit back to back 3-pointers following a pair of Ryan Harrow free throws to make it 64-58 with just over four minutes left. Tennessee never got closer than that.
Despite the victory, chatter persisted that the Wildcats remained on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. According to Rick Bozich, only Billy Gillispie’s first UK team has made the tournament with an RPI worse than 57. UK’s current RPI is 67, and the SEC offers very few opportunities for good wins and several opportunities for bad losses (losing to Tennessee with an RPI of 97 would not have helped). Kentucky has shown it can compete with the top teams in the country. It's also shown a propensity for mental lapses and inconsistency against inferior competition. Now they get a schedule light on marquee matchups and heavy on inferior competition, where a bad loss is more dangerous than a good win. A down year for SEC basketball could result in the most difficult conference season of Calipari's UK tenure.
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