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Tennessee basketball loss to Kentucky a concerning sign for NCAA Tournament

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Tennessee basketball had the stage set for a memorable win. Its performance was downright befuddling and could be a bad indication of what lies ahead in March.

The spotlight was on when the Vols lost to Kentucky 63-56. It was Tennessee’s time to shine against an arch-rival that was struggling. It was a day to play well in honor of former Tennessee basketball sharpshooter Chris Lofton, who had his number retired before the game. What could be better than a big win against the Cats with Lofton, who is from Maysville, Ky., in the house? We’ll never know.

If Tennessee can’t get up for a game like that, how can they be expected to have success in March? Moreover, Kentucky was in desperation mode with many in the commonwealth calling for coach John Calipari’s job. The Wildcats were 10-6 and 2-2 in the SEC before the game, ready to be pounced on. The Vols, who are now 14-3 and 3-1 in the SEC, were supposed to cruise. They never made it out of the port, trailing by seven at halftime.

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The Vols made a run late in the game and were within striking distance, but it has become glaringly obvious that they don’t have a go-to player when things are going south. They could have used Lofton in his prime on Saturday.

It’s common custom to blame the referees when a team loses to Kentucky, but that wasn’t the case on Monday. The Vols were called for 24 fouls to Kentucky’s 18 and many of Tennessee’s transgressions were intentional as they tried to pull off a comeback.

As for that comeback, the Vols weren’t at all adept at overcoming the Cats in the final minutes. Even when it was a one-possession game, the Vols couldn’t get off any sort of solid shot and simply abandoned any sort off offensive strategy, such as an actual play call. Santiago Vescovi’s wild runner with :12 seconds left was proof of that. The Vols were down three, 59-56, and had time to set up a play. Instead, Vescovi threw a runner to the rim that had little chance of going in. That wasn’t his only shot that fell short.

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Vescovi took 13 shots and made just four of those attempts. He only made one of six of his three-point attempts. Yuck. But wait, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Vols’ guards were 3-of-19 from three point range and 11-of-39 from the field. So much for an homage to Lofton. The Vols couldn’t couldn’t hit the broad side of Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday. However, it wasn’t just cold shooting that undermined them.

Kentucky outrebounded the Vols 43-23 and picked up 13 offensive boards. Given the size of both teams, those are simply hustle stats, and the Vols just didn’t compete. Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes is known for changing things up to see if different combinations are more effective. However, that wasn’t the case on Saturday. The Vols had plenty to play for. Tennessee was just bad.

Advancing in the NCAA Tournament is all about having great guard play and being clutch in key moments. It also helps to have composure when trailing. The Vols had none of that against Kentucky. Sure, it’s January, but Tennessee’s basketball team should be further along than it is. The Vols have six weeks to improve in the backcourt, find a go-to scorer and mature in the face of adversity. If that doesn’t happen soon, March will be a month to forget, much like the Vols forgot to show up against the Wildcats.

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